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March 22, 2013
This season the Sooners came of age.
Senior forward Romero Osby, elected earlier this season as one of Oklahoma's three captains, cemented his role as the team's emotional leader on the floor and a consistent presence in the paint. Senior Steven Pledger developed into a more rounded player, rebounding the basketball and play hardnosed defense when it matter most.
Senior Andrew Fitzgerald and junior Cameron Clark, two starters on last season's squad, tucked their pride away to become solid role players and added experience to a bench that can go as deep as six men. Freshman Buddy Hield has become the Sooners' best perimeter defender and a genuine third scoring option on the floor.
Freshman Je'lon Hornbeak has probably grown the most of any player on this Oklahoma men's basketball's team. Now, he's playing in the tournament he's dreamed of playing in since he was a kid.
"We're not one of the main programs in basketball," Hornbeak said. "Just to know that we did make it, and some people are talking about it really gives us some confidence."
He can't wait to play in his first NCAA tournament game against Steve Fisher's San Diego State team at 8:20 p.m. Friday in Philadelphia at Wells Fargo Center.
He knows Fisher from the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on Michigan men's basketball's Fab Five. He said he even wrote a paper about it this year.
"He's a good coach," Hornbeak said. "He gets the team ready to play, ready to play together as well, and he gets a lot out of athletes."
At the beginning of the season, he was one of three freshman playing solid minutes for the Sooners. He and fellow freshman Isaiah Cousins had proven to be so good in early season practices that they'd put two upper classmen on the bench to earn the starting point guard and shooting guard positions.
Cousins struggled as the season wore on and has continued to do so, averaging just 2.5 points per game and 1.5 assists per game, but he's happy to play in the tournament all the same.
"We're in the tournament," Cousins said. "I never had that experience before. It's a pleasure because when you're a kid and you watch March Madness, you're like, 'One day, hopefully, I'll be there' and now I'm here."
Hield had earned a starting position when a broken right foot during the second half of the Sooners' game against Texas Christian on Feb. 11 kept him out of games for three weeks. He's come back strong since his Mar. 6 return against West Virginia and is ready for his first trip to the tournament.
"A lot of freshman don't get the opportunity to go be in the tournament, so I'm pretty blessed to be in the spot right now," Hield said.
Through it all, Hornbeak has continued to be steady and learn from his mistakes. He's played in all 31 games for the Sooners this season and started 28 of them.
He was recruited to Oklahoma as a wing player but didn't hesitate when Oklahoma men's basketball coach Lon Kruger asked him to run the point for a few games. Only the reemergence of Sam Grooms has allowed Hornbeak to return to his natural position.
He's averaging just 5.6 points per game and 2.7 boards per game, but he ranks second on the team in points and has proven to be a gamer. After falling to the hardwood hard enough to draw blood and chip his front teeth in Oklahoma's Feb. 23, contest against Baylor, he returned to the game.
His maturity has been his greatest asset, and his well-rounded game has been a boon for Oklahoma. Hornbeak said he owes much to the seniors, four of whom haven't been asked to the Big Dance before, and he takes pride in being a part of the freshman class that returned OU to the tourney for the first time since 2009.
"We are the ones who started it," he said. "Now, the expectations are for us to make it and do better than we do this year. It's still being determined now, but we're going to try to play as hard as we can and go as far as we can."