If you've followed the Oklahoma Sooners all season, you've probably noticed a different Amath M'Baye recently, a contrast that teammates, head coach Lon Kruger and M'Baye himself attribute to increasing confidence.
Since going scoreless against Texas A&M and following it up with a three-point performance against Stephen F. Austin in December, M'Baye has averaged 13.1 points, including a season-high 20 on Wednesday in a 74-71 win at Baylor. But what's most impressive about M'Baye won't be found in a box score.
"He's a guy that has just worked relentlessly from the start," Kruger said. "Even in December when he wasn't getting the results that he wanted, he didn't waver on the investment side of it. He worked really hard every day. He's a guy that you just know is going to get the results because he keeps working hard on the front end."
While M'Baye has shined for the Sooners lately, the junior chalks his relentless effort up to having a support group around him that is simply what Kruger is building Oklahoma basketball on.
"Throughout the thick and thin, my coaches and teammates just stuck with me and helped me out through it," M'Baye said. "I know I was kind of in a slump for a little bit and I wasn't playing as well as I wanted to and as I was expected to. They stuck with me and helped me out. It's confidence building."
Playing at home usually provides a distinct advantage. From sleeping in your own bed to having thousands of fans behind you, nearly every student-athlete will say he or she prefers to play at home. For the OU men's hoops team, defending its home court is extremely important if it's going to challenge for a top spot in the Big 12. The Sooners have plenty of chances to do that coming up, with three home games over the next 10 days.
"You've got to protect your home court in the Big 12," said senior forward Romero Osby. "Everyone says Kansas is the best team and they've played really well so far. But who's next? Who's that second team? In order to be up there, you've got to win your home games. If we continue to do that, we'll have a chance to be one of those top two or three teams in the league."
In addition to familiarity with the arena, fan support plays a large role in a home team's success. A loud "sixth man" can overwhelm an opponent and help propel the home team to victory.
"It's really big, it means so much," Kruger said of playing in front of a large Lloyd Noble Center crowd. "The students have been great in all of our conference games, but especially against Texas -- they were packed in there. I think they'll be the same way on Saturday and hopefully they're having fun. I know our players appreciate it and are energized by it."
In Big 12 play, home teams are 22-13 so far this season. The Sooners are 3-0.
"It's always good to get road wins, but being able to win at home is a big deal," M'Baye said. "I think we've done a good job so far. I'm just looking forward to big teams like Kansas and Kansas State coming to our house."
After playing three of its last four games on the road, Oklahoma now plays three of the next four at home. First up is a rematch against 18th-ranked Kansas State on Saturday at 5 p.m.
The Sooners dropped a 69-60 decision in Manhattan, Kan., two weeks ago despite making three more field goals than the Wildcats (25 to 22), outshooting them (.472 to .440) and posting a 39-24 rebounding advantage. K-State outscored OU by 21 from 3-point range (10 makes to three) and the Sooners' 16 turnovers led to a whopping 26 KSU points.
OU coaches and players know what it's going to take to win round two at Lloyd Noble Center.
"I thought the turnovers in Manhattan were a big key in the ball game," Kruger said. "We've got to be strong with the ball and jump up and make shots, of course. Our guys are doing a better job of that. On the other end, they've got a lot of shooters you have to guard."
Osby, who scored a team-high-tying 12 points in the first meeting but also committed a season-high five turnovers, said, "We've got to really limit our turnovers, stay physical -- because they're going to be physical -- and rebound the basketball. I think if we do those things we'll have a chance to win."
OU's 74-71 road win over Baylor on Wednesday certainly provided a confidence boost and illustrates the progress the squad has made in a relatively short amount of time.
"That (Kansas State) game was two weeks ago and we grew a lot since then," M'Baye said. "I'm really looking forward to see the product we can put on the court against them (this time)."
The Sooners have won 20 of their last 26 home games against Kansas State, a trend they'll try to continue Saturday.
Oklahoma hosts No. 18 Kansas State on Saturday at the LNC, before a Monday road battle at Iowa State:
at Iowa State
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OU lost at Kansas, but rebounded with an impressive victory on the road on Wednesday at Baylor:
Junior F Amath M'Baye "When (the fans) show up like they did against Oklahoma State and Texas, it was probably the two most fun games I've ever had in my life. Just being able to be at home in front of these guys, it's a great feeling and I'm really hoping they show up again."
Senior F Andrew Fitzgerald "(Amath's) confidence has really been going up now. He believes in that jump shot that he has and he's more aggressive now than he was the first couple games. We need that out of him."
Head Coach Lon Kruger "Any conference in the country, the forumla is to protect that home court and sneak out what you can on the road. It's easier said than done. We know we have to play much better to win on Saturday (vs. Kansas State)." TEAM NOTES
Oklahoma owns a 104-92 all-time record against Kansas State and has won 11 of the last 16 meetings despite falling 69-60 in Manhattan two weeks ago. OU has won 20 of the last 26 meetings in Norman.
The Sooners have played 11 games away from home and just eight in Norman. The eight home games are the fewest among the 75 teams in the six "power" conferences (ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC). In fact, through Thursday, 70 of the 75 teams from those six leagues have played at least 10 home games.
A win Saturday would be Oklahoma's 15th of the season, matching last year's total (finished 15-16) and surpassing the 2009-10 (13) and 2010-11 (14) win totals. A victory would also mark OU's sixth in Big 12 play this season, more than any of the previous three years.
As of Thursday, Oklahoma is ranked 16th out of 347 Division I teams in the CBSSports.com RPI (second best in Big 12 behind No. 2 Kansas), with a strength of schedule ranked No. 8.
Senior F Romero Osby
Osby has shot 50 percent or better in 11 of the last 12 games and during the 12-game stretch is averaging 15.8 points on .556 shooting. In Big 12 play, Osby ranks second in the league with his 17.0 scoring average (tied with K-State's Rodney McGruder) and ranks sixth with his .525 field goal mark.
Junior F Amath M'Baye M'Baye is averaging 15.7 points over the last three games and is coming off a game at Baylor in which he recorded season highs of 20 points and four blocked shots. He leads OU with his .516 season field goal mark (.565 over the last nine games).
Senior G Steven Pledger Coming off a season-high 20-point effort at Baylor in which he scored 14 first-half points, Steven Pledger has scored in double figures in 11 of the last 12 outings. He ranks fifth in the Big 12 with his .370 3-point field goal mark and now ranks third in school history with 218 career 3-pointers. SOCIAL MEDIA
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