Third in 1938, second in 1988, Oklahoma is out to win college basketball's national championship for the first time. It is now officially the favorite to do just that.
Number 1 in the ratings, if not in all hearts, the Sooners served notice Sunday that they are taking their status seriously, flicking away Colorado, 92-80, in a Big Eight Conference tournament championship game that meant a lot more to the losers than it did to the winners.
Because of the loss, Colorado's season is over. Oklahoma, by virtue of being top-seeded in the Midwest Regional, opens NCAA tournament play Thursday at conveniently located Austin, Tex., against 16th-seeded Towson (Md.) State, a team coached by former Colorado assistant Terry Truax.
Oklahoma (26-4) is trying to win 30 or more games for the third consecutive season. In 1988, the Sooners fell four points shy of the national championship, won by conference rival Kansas, in the very same gym the Big Eight teams occupied here over the weekend, Kemper Arena.
"I feel like we have about as good a chance as anybody," said Coach Billy Tubbs. "I don't think there's anyone out there who is head and shoulders over anybody else. I feel like there are about 10 teams, maybe more, that could win the whole thing. We fit into that category."
In what was foreseen as a recuperative season following the loss of NBA first-round picks Stacey King and Mookie Blaylock, Tubbs' club has defeated NCAA tournament entries Kansas, Missouri, Nevada Las Vegas, Loyola Marymount, Texas, Kansas State and Arkansas-Little Rock. It also picked on such relative cream puffs as U.S. International, Northeastern Illinois, Angelo State and Alaska Anchorage, and lost by four points at Arizona in January.
It might have lost Sunday, too, had it not been for an unwise shot taken by Colorado's Stevie Wise.
Eight points down with less than two minutes to play, Colorado kept carving away, carving away. Shaun Vandiver took his 6-foot-10 form 20 feet from the hoop and swished a three-pointer, cutting Oklahoma's lead to 80-75. When Sooner guard Skeeter Henry slipped and fell while trying to be too fancy, Wise stole the ball and went coast-to-coast, making it 80-77 with 1:15 to play.
With an underdog's backing from a crowd of 15,233, the last-place overachievers from Colorado had a genuine shot to win, after having trailed in the second half by as many as 17 points. The shot, alas, was Wise's, and his selection was poor. Rather than play patiently with nearly a minute left, Wise launched a three-pointer. It went in and out.
After that, the Buffaloes never made another basket. Vandiver complicated matters by drawing a technical foul for trying to strip the basketball from a Sooner player before it was thrown in-bounds. "I got a little overzealous," Vandiver said, "and I did something bone-headed."
Oklahoma made 10 consecutive free throws, then celebrated its fourth Big Eight tournament championship in seven years with Henry's alley-oop dunk as time ran out.
So ended the strange little drama of Colorado Coach Tom Miller, whose blushing bosses might have felt an embarrassing sort of relief at their own school's defeat. Having informed Miller two weeks ago that he was being fired, they nearly saw him coach Colorado to its first NCAA appearance since 1969.
Miller wore his lucky pink shirt and had an usher deliver a rose to his wife, who sat on an aisle seat during the game, feeding their baby. By day's end, though, Oklahoma had defeated Colorado for the 21st consecutive time, leaving Miller with an 0-11 mark against them and with nothing left to do but job-hunt. He reportedly may go into private business.
"They're a great bunch of kids and I wish them a lot of luck," said Miller, who received a long hug from Vandiver at courtside after the game.
As for Vandiver, the Big Eight's leading scorer and rebounder, who knows what he will do next? He closed out his season--and possibly his Colorado career--with 26 points, 14 rebounds and a trophy proclaiming him the tournament's most valuable player. A junior and a probable NBA prospect, Vandiver is thinking of transferring because of the ouster of his coach.
Wise, who likewise scored 26 points and made the all-tournament team, also is a junior, on a squad that has but three seniors. Not all of Colorado's players, however, reportedly are as emotionally attached to Miller as Vandiver is.
The Buffs were done in Sunday by 39% shooting, with no player besides Vandiver and Wise scoring in double figures. They missed 14 shots from three-point range and also committed 21 turnovers.
Oklahoma was led by forward Jackie Jones and center William Davis, two of the four players with 26 points in the game. They, too, were all-tournament, along with Henry.
There are no All-American first-teamers in this lineup, no Alonzo Mourning or Lionel Simmons or Gary Payton who makes magazine covers, but after 30 games, the Sooners are finally making believers of some who thought they became the No. 1 team in the nation practically by default.
"Our destiny is that we can go as far as we want," Davis said, whatever that means.
His coach tried to elaborate.
"There are no assurances out there," Tubbs said. "You always know you can lose. Even the early rounds will be tough. But, we've accomplished one of our missions. Where we go from here, well, that's entirely up to the way we play."
When (if?) Oklahoma gets by Towson State, it will play the survivor of the game between North Carolina and Southwest Missouri State. You will know Oklahoma basketball has officially arrived if it enters an NCAA tournament game as a heavy, heavy favorite over North Carolina.