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March 18, 2013

Inside OU's selection Sunday

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TV cameras and camera phones are all focused on the men who make up the Oklahoma men's basketball team at Lloyd Noble today, Selection Sunday.

The players are packed in tightly; close enough that if they were strangers sitting next to each other they might feel the need to separate. Friends, family and fans are packed in tightly behind the team, and they look as eager and nervous as some of the players.

Only OU men's basketball coach Lon Kruger looks calm, cool. He's sitting with his legs hanging off a stage he stood on just a half-hour ago to announce the winners of the team awards at Oklahoma's banquet.

The players are dressed in a casual uniform for the NCAA TV selection show playing on a large projector screen: white polo shirts with the OU insignia stitched on it and blue jeans. Only two of the players have ever played in the NCAA tournament, and only one of those two is a senior.

Romero Osby is that senior.

He's bouncing his right leg in anticipation while the TV announcers reveal the teams from the Midwest Region that have made the tournament. Louisville is announced as the No. 1 overall seed, and the countdown began.

The show takes a commercial break, and a low hum takes the place of the sound of TV voices cascading from the speakers. Andrew Fitzgerald holds a nervous closed fist to his lips, and Sam Grooms checks his mobile phone for news about tournament seedings.

The South Region is being announced, and Big 12 foe Kansas is awarded the No. 1 seed in the region. The announcers work their way through the remaining seeds and come to No. 7.

It's San Diego State, and the Aztecs will play in Philadelphia, Pa., Friday against the No. 10 seed.

"For some reason when I saw San Diego State's name go up, I said 'I think we might end up playing them because I know they said we'd probably be in the Austin region or to Philadelphia," Osby said.

There's a void left to fill for the No. 10 seed in the region on the projector screen, and the word Oklahoma fills it. Players and fans erupt in happiness, in relief.

"When I saw our name go across, it was crazy," Osby said. "It was amazing."

With its selection to the tournament, Oklahoma ended a four-year postseason drought, and in only his second season at OU, Kruger returned Oklahoma to the Big Dance. He is the first coach in NCAA Division-I history to guide five programs to the NCAA tournament.

He started by taking his alma mater, Kansas State, to the tourney 25 years ago and has continued the trend at every university he's coached at since then.

Later, Kruger cited the one constant he's had throughout his success, the one constant he believes is the foundation of his tournament teams.

"It starts with good players, and people who are gonna work hard," Kruger said. "That's always the case. Not many team with players that aren't good get into the tournament."

Just after the announcement of OU returning the tournament, Steven Pledger jumped out of his seat and fist-pumped, hugging his teammates. In matter of moments, the players' phones began to ring.

Grooms was still on his phone by the time he reached the hallway leading into the interview room to talk with local reporters about his feelings, about finally reaching the goal OU set to begin the season.

"I was extremely, extremely, extremely happy," Grooms said. "To see where we were at before and to see your name pop up on the screen on a big occasion like this, lets you know that hard work pays off."

After starting all 31 of Oklahoma's games last season, he gave up his starting spot this season for this moment, for this opportunity. But that didn't make it any less tough for him to come off the bench for the first half of this season.

So he used his frustration to help the team.

"Being the man the man that I am, I took it, and I tried to help the young guys as much as I can because it's bigger than just me," Grooms said.

Grooms understood how young his fellow point guards, Isaiah Cousins and Je'lon Hornbeak, were to be starters in the Big 12. He needed to prepare them for what they'll face over the next three years.

He knew in November if Oklahoma was to make the tournament, Cousins and Hornbeak would have to be made ready to contribute early and often.

Grooms was a part of the 2011-12 team that lost more games than it won, that showed signs of the kind of team it could be given time. He didn't see OU making the tournament at the beginning of this season, but as his team began to win games, he began to believe.

So he played for that. He played for what could be.

"I saw a team that could be good later on, but nobody expects to be in the NCAA tournament just right then and there, especially coming off the season that we came off of last year," Grooms said.

He'd always dreamed of having an opportunity to play in the tournament. He'd watched it on TV from home, believing he was good enough to play in the field of 68.

Today, he is. Today, dreams were fulfilled.

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