Breaking down the 76 Classic final:
Saint Louis was supposed to be a contender for the 76 Classic final.
Oklahoma was not. But New Mexico never got out of the first round against Santa Clara to even face the Sooners.
The Billikens were projected to be an Atlantic 10 title contender. Oklahoma wasn’t supposed to be close to being in contention in the Big 12.
Maybe the Sooners will now.
The 76 Classic didn’t have a stellar field, but the winner of Sunday night’s final between Saint Louis and Oklahoma at the Anaheim Convention Center will have significant momentum going forward.
SLU already made its mark on this young season with a huge home win against Washington. Dispatching a rebuilding Villanova -- which is sure to be in the mix somewhere in the Big East -- elevates the SLU resume, too.
Oklahoma took down a subpar Washington State and a middling Santa Clara out of the WCC.
Saint Louis should win. The Billikens should be a Top 25 team.
But if Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma team continues this upward trajectory, there is plenty of room for the Sooners to make a move in the Big 12. Missouri is the class of the league so far this season, with Baylor and Kansas chasing the Tigers. Texas A&M will be in the mix as well. Texas is young. Oklahoma State hasn’t found itself yet. And it’s hard to tell what to make of Kansas State or Iowa State just yet. Oklahoma has room to grow and can make a play for a top-five finish.
Oklahoma is playing much better defense than it did a year ago. The Sooners have an emerging star in junior Steven Pledger, who is averaging 20 points a game and will be a chore to shut down for the Billikens. Juniors Romero Osby (11.5 ppg, 9 rpg) and Andrew Fitzgerald (9.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg) have excelled early in the season.
But the Sooners haven’t faced a defense like Saint Louis'. The Billikens, as is the norm with a Rick Majerus-coached team, have been stingy. Opponents are averaging just 52.4 points a game against the Billkens. SLU scored 24 points off 12 Villanova turnovers and forced Boston College to turn the ball over 20 times Thursday. Washington, which likes to run, scored 23 points fewer than its average. And in the season opener, Tennessee State scored a meager 37 points against SLU.
The diversity of scorers in Jordair Jett (how can you not like that name?), Cody Ellis, Brian Conklin and Kwamain Mitchell give SLU a different look. The Billikens made 14 3-pointers in their win against Villanova.
Kruger has made his mark in Norman in a short amount of time. He’s an experienced coach who has excelled no matter where he has coached. He won the 76 Classic a year ago while at UNLV. Majerus was a few minutes away from a national championship at Utah in 1998. He has gone through quite a personal trial with his health and in rebuilding this once-proud program.
Beat Oklahoma, win the 76 Classic and the Billikens will be ranked. But that’s not all. SLU will be even more of a threat to challenge Xavier and Temple for the A-10 title and make the NCAA tournament.
It is only November. But the impression SLU is leaving in California is one that can’t be ignored. And for the Big 12, Oklahoma’s awakening is also a reason to pay attention to the Sooners when there was no reason to consider them a factor a month ago.