Back in the Hunt
NORMAN - Big 12 men’s basketball has been so competitive this season, proclaiming a “must-win” scenario seems silly given that any team can beat anybody, anytime, anywhere.
There undeniably are no gimmes on the schedule, and Tuesday night’s showdown between No. 12 Oklahoma and No. 5 Kansas at Lloyd Noble Center could have opened some first-place space for the Jayhawks.
For the Sooners, Tuesday was an opportunity to bounce from a pair of road losses and remain in striking distance for a conference title.
The Sooners tightened up the Big 12 standings by closing the game with an 8-0 run to post an 85-80 victory over the reigning Big 12 champs. OU outscored Kansas 15-4 in the final seven minutes as the Jayhawks converted just two field goals.
Preseason favorite Kansas remains in front in conference play at 6-2. A four-way tie for second consists of preseason Big 12 runner-up selection West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and upstart Kansas State while Texas is in sixth at 4-4.
Had the Jayhawks held on and pushed their winning streak to six, they would have opened up a two-game lead with 10 league games remaining. OU’s clutch victory instead now serves an equalizer for all, and puts the Sooners right back in the hunt.
“Tonight makes it a little bit of an interesting race for the league,” OU head coach Lon Kruger said afterward. “Hopefully we can hang in there and keep going. It’s a big boost to beat Kansas … everybody knows that.”
Asked if the Big 12 is the nation’s toughest conference, Kruger said, “Without question, top to bottom. There’s 10 really, really good teams. We take turns on who’s ranked out of the 10. If you don’t play well, you’re not going to win – period – whether it’s home, road, whatever. Sometimes you do play well and you don’t win. It’s a great league.”
Kansas head coach Bill Self was asked the same question and responded: “I get a kick out of all coaches saying their league, by far, is the best when they haven’t played anybody in the other leagues. There is absolutely no guarantees anywhere (in the Big 12) – home or away. I don’t know if it’s the best. You could make a case for the ACC, obviously. But I would say (the Big 12) is the deepest when you talk about all 10 teams, and all of them (with an) RPI in the Top 85, or whatever. There’s no other league in America that can rival that.”
OU freshman sensation Trae Young, the national leader in scoring (30.3) and assists (9.6), finished with 26 points on just nine field-goal attempts (7-for-9 from the field, plus 10-for-12 on free throws). He also had nine assists and played 40 minutes.
In last Saturday’s 83-81 overtime loss at Oklahoma State, Young finished with a career-high 48 points, but it came with 14-for-39 shooting from the field, plus seven turnovers.
“I was just showing I could manage a game and get my teammates involved – getting them involved early and executing,” Young said of his much-improved efficiency. “We played really well tonight.”
Kruger added, “I thought Trae was fantastic all night long.”
Although Tuesday marked KU’s first road loss in conference play this season, the Jayhawks had been flawless in close conference contests. Their six Big 12 victories have been by a total margin of 24 points (4.0-point average).
Normally unbeatable at home, KU’s three league victories inside Allen Fieldhouse this season have been by margins of five, one and three, accompanied with a 12-point loss to Texas Tech, which previously had been 0-17 in Lawrence.
Now it’s the Sooners who have become unbeatable at home, posting their 13th straight victory at LNC and ending a two-game skid that came against unranked teams on the road after being ranked No. 4 nationally last week.
The remaining schedule for all 10 Big 12 teams will play a key role. Surprisingly, the Sooners already have finished their season series against TCU and Oklahoma State, but they have yet to face Texas, Baylor and Iowa State.
Again, not a gimme in the bunch.
Every Big 12 team steps out of conference play this week to play in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. The Sooners will play at Alabama (13-7; 5-3) on Saturday at 1:15 p.m. CT on ESPN.