As the sellout crowd arrived and started settling in their seats, they saw something odd. OU freshman phenom Blake Griffin was warming up with the team. Surely not. He just had a major knee injury 12 days earlier and had not really practiced. The Bears didn't game plan for him and no one thought he would be playing.
Sure enough, tipoff went off without a hitch and Griffin was on the bench. A collective exhale went out from the boisterous Baylor crowd. But then something happened. The miracle knee and Blake Griffin rose up off the bench and checked in the game. 17 points, 15 rebounds, and 2 huge baskets in the last 2 minutes later, Griffin and the Sooners had spoiled Baylor's day.
Fast forward a month. Baylor desperately needed a victory to keep NCAA tournament hopes alive. They have another big road matchup at Norman - but this time there's no doubt Blake Griffin is playing. Griffin goes for what at the time was a career high in points - but no matter - clutch Curtis Jerrells makes a bucket at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime. Up 3 with 10 seconds to play, the Bears were feeling good...until a miraculous 4 point play by Tony Crocker. OU now up 1, the Bears had one last shot. It was Jerrells turn again, and much like he recently did against Oklahoma State, he was able to draw a foul with 1 second to go. Unfortunately for Jerrells and the Bears - he missed both free throws and Kevin Rogers missed a tip in attempt - and the Bears lost 92-91.
The context of the game Saturday at 3:00 on ESPNU, as the Bears travel to Norman to battle the Sooners, is much more than a conference basketball game. It's 24 straight losses to OU in Big 12 basketball. It's the frustration of last year. It's revenge time for the Bears - at least they hope it is.
The 18-1 Oklahoma Sooners are clearly the class of the Big 12 so far this season. In non-conference, they had great victories over the likes of Purdue (by 5) and Davidson (by 4). Their lone slip-up was when Arkansas had a miracle week, knocking off both OU and Texas.
In conference, OU is 4-0. The Bears and Sooners have two common opponents - both in conference. Both teams played at Kansas State, OU winning by 8 and the Bears winning by 18 in a game that was never close. The two teams have also both played at Texas A&M, where OU won a tough game by 6 points and the Bears lost a not-so-close game by 11.
OU has already knocked off what everyone considers the 2nd best team in the Big 12 - the Texas Longhorns, beating them by 15 in Norman. They were clearly more focused for that game than they were when they played Nebraska earlier in the week, having to make a second half comeback to win by 11 (they were down 6 at the half).
Baylor shouldn't have a tougher road game all season long. The Sooners were very tough at home last year in conference, going 6-2, and so far this year, obviously haven't lost at home yet, including non-conference.
OU has the best player in the Big 12 and arguably the best player in the nation in sophomore Blake Griffin. Most know that he will probably be one of the first players drafted in next year's NBA draft if not the #1 overall pick. He is leading the conference in points and rebounds, and will be a very tough matchup for the Bears.
Baylor has switched up its starting lineup the last 2 games, inserting freshman forward Quincy Acy. It's unclear at this point whether Scott Drew will keep the same lineup and try to use Acy on Griffin, or whether he will switch it up or maybe put Kevin Rogers on Griffin. They could also use some zone to try to stop him, which they executed nicely against Kansas State. No matter what defense they use, Acy and Rogers will need to realize they are not going to stop Griffin and don't have to block every shot he takes. If they get too aggressive, Griffin will not only still get his points, but he'll put Acy and Rogers in foul trouble. Drew will hope they can stay out of foul trouble and put pressure on both Griffin brothers (Blake and Taylor) on the other end of the court.
OU doesn't only have one superstar this year though, freshman guard Willie Warren is the second leading scorer on the team with 15 points a game and can take over a game any given day. Despite the Bears being extremely heavy on guard talent, they will need to keep close tabs on Warren and try to get him to play out of control.
Someone that's playing very much under control for the Sooners right now is point guard Austin Johnson. He was key to the Sooners victory at Texas A&M, and scored 15 and 19 against the Bears last year. If he can continue his production of the last few games, the Sooners will be tough to stop.
Much like the Bears, OU gives fairly heavy minutes to 5 or 6 guys - both Griffins, Warren, Johnson, Tony Crocker and Cade Davis. They don't limit their minutes to the bench players quite as much as Baylor has lately, but you will see those names on the court the vast majority of the time.
The Bears continue to be an offensive machine in the Big 12 - coming in 3rd in overall scoring, 2nd in scoring margin, 1st in field-goal percentage, 2nd in 3 point field-goal percentage, and 2nd in 3 pointers made. But they face a team in OU that is both skilled offensively, and doing some good things to stop teams defensively. OU is 4th in scoring (to Baylor's 3rd), 3rd in scoring margin (to Baylor's 2nd), 4th in field goal percentage (to Baylor's 1st), but they are 1st in field goal percentage defense (to Baylor's 8th), 2nd in rebounding (to Baylor's 9th), 2nd in blocked shots (to Baylor's 4th), and 3rd in steals (to Baylor's 5th). Like every game, if the Bears are hitting shots, they will be right in the game - but with OU's #1 field goal percentage defense, Baylor's shots won't be as easy to come by.
In individual numbers, both teams have 2 players in the top 20 in scoring in the league - Griffin and Warren for OU, Jerrells and Lacedarius Dunn for Baylor. Dunn is up to the 8th best scorer in the league after making 9 three pointers against Kansas State - no way OU ignores him the way the Wildcats did. Dunn, a fierce competitor, will have to work hard for his points this game.
Both Griffin brothers are top 10 in rebounding, while Baylor has Kevin Rogers at #6. Rogers continues to lead the Big 12 in offensive rebounds - and now has some more help from Quincy Acy who has broken the top 20 in the league in overall rebounds.
Baylor has 2 guys distributing the ball nicely - Jerrells is 3rd in the league in assists and Tweety Carter is 14th. OU meanwhile is led by Johnson, who ranks 7th overall in assists in the league.
If it comes down to free throws, Baylor might have the advantage as the Bears have 3 guys in the top 15 in the league in free throw percentage (Dunn, Henry Dugat, and Jerrells), OU only has one in Warren.
But if it simply comes down to defensive intensity - the Bears might be in trouble as they only have 1 guy in the top 15 at steals (Dugat at #2), while the Sooners have 4 guys (both Griffins, Warren, and Johnson).
Summary and Projection
Having already played #1 Wake Forest and top 20 Arizona State, Baylor is not new to tough teams this season. They came up short against the taller Wake Forest team, but were able to play a team game to defeat a talented Arizona State team.
There's almost too many questions to make a projection. Which Bears team will show up? The one that travelled to College Station or the one that travelled to Manhattan?
Will they make a commitment to defense like they did in the first half against K-State? Will Acy and Rogers stay out of foul trouble? Will the guards be able to rattle freshman Willie Warren?
As 110 students making the trip from the Baylor Bear Pit try to make the arena feel a little more like home - we are hoping the Bears play like they are on the road. They play more loose and with an "us against the world" attitude when challenged on the road. And if they can answer the above questions correctly, then they will be in the game with a chance to win at the end. That's about as close as we can get to a projection for this great college basketball contest.