The Sooners were the underdog on Saturday against Texas, but not by much. Yes, the Longhorns were ranked No. 24 in the nation, but the Sooners would’ve been ranked No. 28 if the Associated Press rankings had extended out that far.
They would’ve been ranked two spots behind Connecticut, one spot behind UCLA and one spot ahead of Stephen F. Austin.* It’s funny now to think nearly a year after the Sooners barely made the tournament they’ve received more votes than Gonzaga in the last week of February, played with Kansas at the Phog until the final minutes of the game and were picked to beat Texas.
*Stephen F. Austin is one of three teams who are still undefeated during conference play. The other two: No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Wichita State. It kind of makes you wonder where the Lumberjacks would be ranked if they played in a power conference. I think they’d be a top 5 team if they didn’t play in the Southland Conference. But they do. Such is life.
Forget the spread. KenPom.com gave OU a 66-percent chance of beating a bigger, stronger Texas team. That’s saying something when you consider point guard Isaiah Taylor matches up well with point guard Jordan Woodard. 2-guard Java Felix is capable of scoring with 2-guard Buddy Hield, and Jonathan Holmes could give Cam Clark fits in the post.
Couple those facts with the resounding fact that Texas is the fifth-best rebounding team in Division I, and it could easily seem like the Sooners were going to play the Longhorns to a standstill on the perimeter and get pounded in the paint and on the glass inside. And they did.
The Longhorns outrebounded OU 40-32 and outscored OU 38-18 in the paint. UT center Cameron Ridley had his way with the Sooner forwards inside. He finished with 19 points, 14 boards and a block. Early in the game, it looked like the Longhorns could and would ride him to a victory.
Then two things happened. The first thing was OU’s perimeter scorers caught fire. The second thing was Texas’ perimeter players didn’t. While Hield and Isaiah Cousins stroke shot after shot, the Longhorn guards turned over possession after possession. Rick Barnes even called them on it following the game.
“The thing that bothers you with the guards — turnovers,” Barnes said.
Half of Texas’ 16 turnovers belonged to guards. Felix had three of them, and he wasn’t even running the point.
“I thought our guys had good focus on what Texas wanted to do and I thought our guys responded with great awareness,” OU coach Lon Kruger said.
They did. They kept UT’s guards from scoring in bunches and were able to keep pace with Texas bigs not named Ridley. Holmes and Connor Lammert combined for just 20 points against a team that doesn’t boast a man taller than 6-foot-8. Not bad.
The Sooners won the game 77-65, and with that win pulled even with Texas in the Big 12 standings on Saturday. Later that day Kansas State upset* Iowa State at home to give both of those teams 10-6 records in Big 12 play. So now there’s a four-way tie for second place in the Big 12 with two games left to play in the regular season. The question is which one of these teams is going to finish in that coveted No. 2 spot heading into the conference tourney? So let’s take a look at it.
*Kansas and Kansas State are the only undefeated teams at home in league competition this year. We knew about the Phog, but all of a sudden Bramlage Coliseum has turned into a fortress.
Kansas State has games left against Oklahoma State in Stillwater and Baylor at home. I don’t think KSU is good enough to walk into Gallagher-Iba and pull out a win, not the way the Pokes have been playing lately.
Marcus Smart has come on like a blue norther these last few games, and OSU has played some of its best basketball. KSU made Baylor earn a win in overtime in Waco last month, but I don’t think the Bears are good enough to beat the Wildcats in Manhattan. I think KSU will split its last two and leave the door open for one of those other three teams to claim that spot behind Kansas who has all but locked up the No. 1 seed in the Big 12 tourney.
Iowa State has to finish with one on the road at Baylor and a game in Ames against Oklahoma State. Both are capable of beating the Cyclones. The Bears have the 3-point shooting and perimeter scoring to play the kind of high-scoring up-and-down game the Cyclones like to play, and, again, Oklahoma State knows its playing for a bid to the NCAA tournament right now.
OSU will come out swing haymakers. I think ISU will split its last two, though I’m not sure which team will beat it. I just don’t think Cyclones can ride Melvin Ejim — and Melvin Ejim alone — to two back-to-back wins.
The Sooners finish out with a game at Lloyd Noble against West Virginia and a game in Fort Worth against Texas Christian. If the Sooners can get past the Mountaineers, who beat them in Morgantown, they shouldn’t have a problem against TCU. Although a team with nothing to lose — like the Horned Frogs — is a dangerous, dangerous team. I wouldn’t want to play them.
Then again, I don’t think there’s a team in the conference you’d REALLY want to play at this time a year. At least nine of the 10 teams in this league could win the Big 12 tourney. Knowing it probably can’t put together four consecutive wins, TCU will be looking for a scalp in its last two games. Which brings us back to Texas.
Texas has the easiest road left with a game at home against TCU — still the only winless team in Big 12 conference play — and finishes its regular season on the road at Texas Tech. TCU is due for a win and capable of pulling off a stunner, despite what its record says.
Just look at what the Horned Frogs did last year against Kansas in Fort Worth. You could this is a different year, different team and the Horned Frogs are playing Texas at the Drum. In which case, I’d agree with you. But last year’s TCU team didn’t have Kyan Anderson averaging 16.6 points and 4.5 assists per game. He’s good enough to take a game over, and if the UT guards play against him like they did Cousins on Saturday, the Longhorns could become TCU’s first victim of 2014.
We all know by now Tubby Smith has a done a job out in Lubbock. He has the Red Raiders in each game and poised to win a couple of them. Heck, they lost to Kansas by just one point and beat the same Oklahoma State team that spoiled KU’s first attempt to claim the Big 12 title outright.
That’s a darn good basketball team and more than able to whip Texas in Lubbock. But I also think UT has the easiest two remaining games of the Big 12 regular season, and it should win out. Doesn’t mean the Longhorns will, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they did.
If there is a tie between two or more of these teams, then the Big 12 tiebreaker rules come into play. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, let’s see how the basketball bounces.