The end of the regular season in college basketball signals the start of the most fun stretch of the season: March Madness. Multiple games in a day, teams fighting for their lives, win or go home. The Sooners start the postseason as the No. 4 seed in this week's Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship and will play No. 5 seed Iowa State Thursday at 11:30 a.m. CT in Kansas City (ESPN2).
The league's parity is expected to add excitement and intrigue to this year's conference tournament, with the trophy completely up for grabs. The number of close games in Big 12 play during the regular season hints at what should be an electrifying atmosphere and four days of basketball at the Sprint Center.
"Every team has the possibility of being upset," junior forward Amath M'Baye said. "There are so many even teams in the conference that it's going to be a dog fight, and I like dog fights. I think it's going to be fun."
The third meeting between the Sooners and Cyclones will determine the series winner. Iowa State claimed an 83-64 victory on Feb. 4 in Ames, while Oklahoma returned the favor in Norman with an 86-69 win on March 2. This time, neither team will have a home-court advantage.
"They're a very good basketball team, tough to match up with," head coach Lon Kruger said. "They've got a lot of 3-point shooters on the perimeter, their big guys can pick and pop and shoot the 3 well. They space the floor great. (Head coach) Fred (Hoiberg) does a terrific job of putting them in the position to make it tough on the opponent, and we've got to have a lot of energy and enthusiasm to cover."
The fun begins Thursday morning at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. For the Sooners, the goal is simple: win to play another day.
Seniors Romero Osby and Steven Pledger and junior Amath M'Baye were honored by Big 12 head coaches for impressive regular season performances. Osby was named to the first-team All-Big 12 squad, becoming the first Sooner since Blake Griffin in 2009 to garner first-team accolades. M'Baye and Pledger were named to the All-Big 12 third team.
The trio put up impressive numbers this season. In Big 12 play, Osby ranked first in the league with 109 field goals, second with his 17.8 points per game and third with a .540 field goal percentage. Pledger ranks third in the conference with his 2.3 3-pointers per contest and sixth with his .377 3-point percentage. M'Baye was also named to the Big 12 All-Rookie Team and was a two-time Big 12 Rookie of the Week.
"They're a great group of guys," Kruger said. "Really happy for Roe being on the first team and Amath and Pledge on the third team. They've played well all year and it's good to see them rewarded (for) that."
M'Baye, Osby and Pledger said they understand their awards are a product of the team's success, and that their teammates played a big role in their postseason recognition.
"It means a lot to me, but I also understand I couldn't have done it without my teammates, my coaches and the grace of God," Osby said. "I'm happy and excited for myself, but I'm also happy and more excited for my team, happy that I was able to represent them in a good way and help get the Oklahoma program to where it needs to be."
Looking at the numbers, it's clear how much M'Baye, Osby and Pledger have meant to OU's success this year. It's also clear how much more the team meant to them.
Nobody saw it coming. The Sooners beat TCU 75-48 on Feb. 11 in Norman, and fans nor media gave the Horned Frogs a sporting chance of turning the tables in the regular season finale in Fort Worth on Saturday.
But OU went 0-for-16 from 3-point range, shot 36.4 percent overall and lost 70-67. The Sooners trailed by 25 early in the second half before cutting the deficit to one twice in the final minutes, but they never got over the hump. The victory for TCU was just its second in Big 12 play.
"We didn't shoot the ball very well," said Kruger. "I thought that really affected our energy level and we let that affect other parts of our game. Consequently, we didn't get the result we wanted."
Kruger said he fully expects his team to bounce back this week for the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship in Kansas City. What's the key to doing that?
"Just refocus," said M'Baye on Monday. "We've had a disappointing loss before and we usually respond pretty well to that. We just have to come back to practice and go back to work. There's nothing else you can do. You can't be disappointed over it and be sad about it forever."
Thursday's 11:30 a.m. quarterfinals game against No. 5 seed Iowa State provides the perfect opportunity for the fourth-seeded Sooners to put the TCU game in their rearview mirror. With the postseason here, there's no time to dwell on the past.