NORMAN, Okla. — There was no secret where Oklahoma was going to open the NCAA tournament. But when the Sooners' name popped up on the television as a No. 6 seed, it was enough to bring out a big cheer from coach Sherri Coale's players.
Expecting to be as low as a No. 8 seed with the potential to face one of the nation's top teams in the second round, the Sooners (20-12) instead will start with a less treacherous path against 11th-seeded Michigan on Sunday night.
And, as expected, they'll be playing at home at the Lloyd Noble Center.
"We're really excited about it. A sixth seed, it's a really good seed for us," said Whitney Hand, the team's second-leading scorer and top rebounder. "Our path, it's always difficult. Every team here in the tournament is going to be a difficult team, so there's not really an easy path."
It could have been worse, though.
Two years removed from back-to-back Final Four appearances, the Sooners are unranked — as they have been most of the season — for the first time since 2005.
Yet, the NCAA tournament seedings place them among the top 24 teams in the country.
"We were kind of coming in thinking we were a seven or eight. We talked about six but that's what we were really hoping for," point guard Morgan Hook said. "All of us were just trying to be real like we might have a seven or eight. Just our opportunity, the teams that we have drawn up, we don't have to play (top-ranked and undefeated) Baylor in the second round."
No. 3 seed St. John's (22-9) and 14th-seeded Creighton (20-12) will play in the first game in Norman on Sunday, with the winners advancing to play on Tuesday.
St. John's snapped Connecticut's 99-game home winning streak last month and tied with UConn for second in the Big East, behind Notre Dame. Creighton, a surprise winner of the Missouri Valley tournament after placing fourth in the regular season, is back in the tournament for the first time in a decade.
Similarly, Michigan (20-11) is in for the first time since 2001 after getting an at-large bid as the seventh-place team in the Big Ten. The seven teams in the NCAA tournament set a record for the conference.
The Big 12 also got seven of its 10 teams in, perhaps boosting Oklahoma's seed.
"Obviously, our league got a great deal of respect with seven teams in and then that coupled with our pre-conference schedule I think is the reason we got the seed we did," Coale said.
Oklahoma was also a No. 6 seed last year and went on to upset third-seeded Miami in the second round, getting to the round of 16 for the ninth time.
Hand and forward Joanna McFarland remain from the Sooners' most recent Final Four trip, as are Jasmine Hartman and Lyndsey Cloman — both out with season-ending knee injuries.
"It's a different feel than most of the other teams. When I was a freshman, everyone had experience and now it's different. They're going to have to follow and we're going to have to lead," Hand said.
"We're going to have to show by experience and really just go out there and play like there's nothing to lose."
The Sooners have had an up-and-down season, struggling to compete with the top-tier teams on their schedule including Baylor, defending national champion Texas A&M and Connecticut. The regular season ended with a home loss against Kansas.
"It's been the same thing, the same story the whole year. If we play hard, we're going to win," Hook said. "We have the talent that's there. It's just we for some reason pick our games to play hard and we have to play hard every game."
Hand said the team must get away from letting its energy level be dictated by whether shots are going in.
"Right now, we're stressing defense," Hand said. "You're going to shoot how you're going to shoot. You can't really control it, so our philosophy at the moment is tough defense and rebounds are going to win championships."
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