NORMAN — A mesh sign down the right-field line spells out Oklahoma’s baseball tradition in years. The two national champions are at the top, the three NCAA tournament super regional appearances are in the middle. At the bottom are the 35 NCAA tournament years.
There’s an opening just underneath 2002 and just to the right of 2012 that needs to be filled in.
What happens when the Sooners (36-19) face Baylor (27-25) in the Big 12 tournament’s opening game at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, could have a huge impact on whether that spot remains vacant.
“We know we need to win some games to help our cause,” Sooner catcher Anthony Hermelyn said. “If we can get another quality win against a team like Kansas State, it would help. But you try to win every game. We’re looking to make a run.”
How deep a run does OU need to make in the Big 12 tournament? Depends on what statistics you look at and whose opinion you value. The only ones who know for sure are the members of the NCAA tournament selection committee. It make its pronouncement Monday.
The Sooners are No. 51 in the Ratings Percentage Index heading into the Big 12 tournament. The ranking puts them on the bubble.
But OU refuses to believe it is a bubble team.
“No,” OU coach Sunny Golloway said when asked if he believed he had to win the Big 12 tournament to get into the NCAA tournament.
“Unless you talked to the committee and know we’re in — what did you call it (a do-or-die situation). If you know that for fact that we are, tell me and I’ll go tell them. But I don’t see it that way.”
There are legitimate factors working in OU’s favor. Its RPI isn’t great, but teams with RPIs in the 50s get at-large bids every year. The program’s tournament history doesn’t hurt either. It’s been a tournament team seven of the last eight years. Only once did it fail to reach the regional tournament title game. Three of those years it won the regional, including on the road at Virginia last season.
Golloway also pointed out that having Jonathan Gray, who will take the mound against the Bears today and could be the first player selected in next month’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, was also a strong selling point.
Nonetheless, the label OU has to shake is that of a team in the midst of a downward spiral. There’s no getting around the fact it’s lost its last three series to West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. Sandwiched between those series losses were two midweek losses to Dallas Baptist. They’re 3-8 over their last 10 games.
The Big 12 tournament is the last chance to show OU can start ticking back up.
“I don’t think we’re taking it as do or die,” first baseman Matt Oberste said. “We’d really like to win this one (Big 12 tournament). We were close last year but didn’t get it done. We want to win a few games. I still think we’re gonna get a regional bid, but we want to win a Big 12 championship.”
The difference between need and want is what it all comes down to. Win the Big 12 tournament and the need for an at-large bid goes away.
Either way, the Sooners know winning games in Oklahoma City can solve problems — real or perceived. They just don’t want to be told extending their season hinges on winning the Big 12 tournament.
“We have to be relaxed. We can’t go into a game all tense and worried about this could be last game of the season,” outfielder Craig Aikin said. “You have to have fun and stay loose to play your best ball.”
The Sooners haven’t in a while, but it’s baseball. Teams can get hot or cold with one swing of the bat. They believe their fortunes are about to change. They just refuse to believe their NCAA tournament hopes hinge on it happening.
“I don’t think that mindset would be the best for these guys,” outfielder Max White said. “It’s not do or die, but more intense and more energetic. We know we have to exhaust our efforts this weekend.”
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