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March 13, 2014

Spangler's dream of playing in Big 12 tourney comes true

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler had just finished shootaround for the first time on the court at the Sprint Center and felt good. He felt ready.

He stood in the hallway that runs in one continuous circle in front of a couple of reporters and spoke about finally getting the opportunity to play in the Big 12 tourney.

"Gotta a little rhythm at the end," Spangler said. "Gotta a little feel for the basket, so it was good."

Three years ago, he'd resigned himself to playing in the northwest for Gonzaga, one of the mid-major powers of college basketball, after growing up and playing his high school basketball within shouting distance of OU.

He'd become used to playing all of his games within driving distance of his family. But when he decided to play at Gonzaga he found his family could only attend his games once a month.

He missed them, but he knew what he had in Spokane, Wash. -- a scholarship to play the sport he loved most. Then things happened, and they didn't happen. It wasn't working for him at Gonzaga.

He seldom saw playing time -- averaging just 2.5 points, 2.4 boards and 6.6 minutes per game -- and he was homesick.

It's the combination of those two things that brought him around to the decision to ask Gonzaga coach Mark Few for his release. Though Few really liked Spangler's game, the Bulldogs were replete with good post players.

Spangler soon got his release, and not long after received a phone call from assistant coach Steve Henson. Henson thought he could play, and he knew the Sooners would need low post presence like the one Spangler could provide with the loss of former Sooners Romero Osby and Amath M'Baye.

A year later, Spangler has become the best rebounder in the league he grew up watching and is one of the biggest reasons the Sooners have earned a No. 2 seed in the tournament and have reached their highest Associated Press poll ranking in five years.

Standing in that spherical hallway, Spangler reflected on how things have finally come full circle for him.

"I thought in high school and when I was younger I would play for OU," he said. "So I'd watch them play here and want to play here in front of all the fans and everybody. But it didn't work out that way -- and now it has."

But he's under no allusions that his dream will end like they do in the movies. For the first time since 2006, all eight of the top seeds in the tournament have advanced through to the quarterfinals, and all of them are capable of beating the other.

Even losing just one game all season against their side of the bracket, the Sooners are considered a soft No. 2 seed by some.

"We still gotta prove ourselves," Spangler said. "Not a lot of people believe in us still. We need to play like we have the last four or five games, and I think we'll be fine."

The Big 12 claims seven teams with legitimate chances of earning an invitation to the NCAA tournament this Sunday. Three of its players are projected as top 5 picks in this year's NBA draft, and none of them won Big 12 Player of the Year.

The Sooners' top two scorers, sophomore Buddy Hield and senior Cameron Clark, couldn't even crack the All-Big 12 first team. The best Spangler could do after leading the league in rebounding was receive an honorable mention.

"Without question, I think you can argue this is one of the best leagues in the country," said OU coach Lon Kruger. "The depth of it, again as indicated by the talent pool of those all-conference teams, I think there's talk of seven and maybe an eighth if West Virginia can get a couple. I think that's legitimate. The league is that deep."

Just before walking off toward the locker room, Spangler reminded reporters -- reminded himself -- the truth of this year's Big 12 tourney.

"Anybody can beat anybody in this tournament," he said.

Oklahoma NEWS


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