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Gray, OU prep for The Dance
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Sooner senior talks about team's chances
NORMAN â€” Taj Gray and his Oklahoma teammates have tested the emotional gamut over the last few weeks, experiencing everything from the thrill of four straight 1-point victories to the disappointment and frustration of consecutive setbacks against Texas and Nebraska.
But Gray contends, as the Sooners begin preparations for their 11th NCAA Tournament appearance in 12 seasons, that the past is the past and his team is looking at its trip to Jacksonville, Fla., as a new lease on life.
In an exclusive interview, Sooner Spectator talked to Gray about OUâ€™s NCAA Tourney prospects, especially in light of the Soonersâ€™ mostly-forgettable performances the last two times out.
Sooner Spectator: This team has not played even close to its potential the last two games and the result was two ugly losses. What are your thoughts on those games and your task at hand?
Taj Gray: Honestly, itâ€™s going to do us absolutely no good to focus on those games. We canâ€™t do anything about them now, so we need to look at whatâ€™s in front of us and what we feel we still have some control over. We canâ€™t do anything about the Texas game or the Nebraska game â€” we didnâ€™t play like we should and thatâ€™s over with. All that matters right now is how we prepare ourselves and come out to play against Wisconsin-Milwaukee. If we sit around and worry about being mad or frustrated at what we did the last two games, thatâ€™s going to do nothing but get in the way of what we need to focus on.
SS: There have been some games where this team has played up to its capabilities and really looked like the preseason Top-5 squad many believe OU would be. But the consistency has been missing. What will it take for this team to find that element and make a serious run in the tourney?
Gray: Basically, we have to go out and play hard and play together like we know how. Thereâ€™s no big secret to that â€” we really just have to have every guy on this team come to play every game. There have been a few games where weâ€™ve gotten away from doing what we are used to doing, like rebounding and playing good defense. Those are things we have to do good to be successful.
SS: Why do you think this team has not been able to play at a higher level more consistently?
Gray: There have been some game where we havenâ€™t done a good job responding as players. If we have a game plan, itâ€™s our job to execute and succeed. For some reason, there have been some games where we didnâ€™t get that done. But again, our focus is on making sure that doesnâ€™t happen again. We will be ready come Thursday.
SS: So you believe this OU team is still capable of pulling the pieces together and getting on a roll in the tourney?
Gray: Oh yes. Itâ€™s not like we are dead or the season is over or anything like that. We know how to win. We just have to prepare ourselves for a new opportunity to prove that. Itâ€™s something weâ€™ve talked about.
SS: What are your feelings about the first-round battle against UW-Milwaukee?
Gray: Weâ€™re excited. We know we have plenty of work to do to get ready for a good team and thatâ€™s our only focus right now.
SS: How much do you, as one of the three seniors, feel you need to take on your shoulders and make sure this team is ready?
Gray: Thatâ€™s something I always try to do, so I donâ€™t feel there is any added pressure to do that now. We have guys who know their roles on this team and itâ€™s up to every one of us to make sure we do our part. That goes for seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen. Like I said, the key for us is to play together. We need to play free and relaxed, and if we do that, I believe weâ€™ll be fine.
Oklahoma earned its 11th NCAA Tournament bid since Kelvin Sampson took over the reins 12 seasons ago. The sixth-seeded Sooners will face No. 11 seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee in a first-round battle on Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla. The winner of the OU-UWM contest will advance into a Saturday showdown again the winner of the Florida vs. South Alabama game.
An at-large selection, Oklahoma (20-8 overall, 11-5 Big 12) will be taking on a UW-Milwaukee squad (21-8, 12-4 Horizon League) that won a regular season league title and the conference tournament.
The Sooners (20-8, 11-5 Big 12) will be making their 24th NCAA Tournament appearance. OU owns a 32-23 all-time record in the Big Dance, including an 8-3 mark during its last three NCAA Tournament trips. That stretch covers a Final Four appearance in 2002 and a trip to the Elite Eight a season later.