Full-court press: Kansas State

Sooners, Wildcats battle for second time in Big 12 play

Sooners Illustrated will present three things to watch before every men’s basketball game during the 2014-15 season.

No. 17 Oklahoma (17-7, 8-4) at Kansas State (12-13, 5-7)

When: 7:05 p.m. CST

TV/Radio: ESPN2/107.7 FM(OKC); 1430 AM (Tulsa)

Series: Oklahoma, 105-95

Not the same inside

The first time around against Kansas State, the Wildcats found Oklahoma’s weakness and exploited it. The Sooners had no coverage inside or in the mid-range game, and Kansas State took advantage.

After averaging just 21 points in the paint during the first two Big 12 Conference games, Oklahoma allowed at least 30 points in the paint during the next three games and averaged 31.6 during a four-losses-in-five-games skid.

Oklahoma has allowed 30 points in the paint just twice during its five-game win streak.

“Our guys are doing a better job of that all the time,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “We certainly have to in this one.”

So far, Oklahoma has bulked up inside.

Forward Ryan Spangler has scored in double digits in every game since the Sooners’ loss to Kansas State, while TaShawn Thomas and Khadeem Lattin have a combined 17 blocks in the past five games.

Thomas continues to grow

After Oklahoma’s victory against Iowa State, when Thomas scored 22 points, pulled down 11 rebounds, dished out five assists and had three blocks, all without a turnover – only his second game of the season without one, the forward laughed when asked whether having the day off before a game is something he needs to do more often.

Thomas missed the previous day’s practice after being hit in the eye two days earlier in a victory against TCU. He was held out of practice but didn’t leave the facility.

He didn’t practice with the team, but he found his way to the film room – something he said he should do more before every game.

“I notice that most of the teams in the Big 12 go to the boards,” Thomas said. “Everybody is big on offensive boards. If you don’t box out, they are just going to kill you on them. It’s just way more physical than what I’d been used to in my three years at Houston.”

The Sooners’ coaching staff has put an extra onus on Thomas during the past few games, along with Spangler. Oklahoma has worked the ball inside more. Spangler and Thomas are combining to average more than 26 points.

Thomas was also able to track opponents’ tendencies with a little more work in the film room, something he didn’t do early in conference season.

“I’ve just been able to take my time and knock down some shots and find other people too,” said Thomas, who added that he gets more comfortable when he knocks down an early shot. “I guess it is more comfortable. It’s just me more in my habitat.”

Finding their stride

Confidence is riding high in Norman, and so are shooting percentages.

During the current five-game winning streak, Oklahoma is shooting 50 percent from the field and have outscored opponents, 115-47, off of turnovers.

Right now, Oklahoma is playing the best it has all season long. “This is the best stretch of basketball we’ve played, for sure, when you combine both offense and defense,” Kruger said. “We’ve had moments that weren’t what we want, but we certainly haven’t had that in the five-game stretch. . . . A lot of guys playing with confidence right now, probably more than we’ve had all year. Hopefully, that translates into the team playing with a lot of confidence.”

Kansas State ended Oklahoma’s high the last time these two teams played, when Wildcats’ guard Marcus Foster hit a game-tying shots in the final seconds of regulation and hit a game-winning, 3-pointer in overtime.

Oklahoma has learned a lot since then, and part of those lessons have turned into the Sooners’ current streak.

“They’ve been pretty consistent and just focused on the next ball game, trying to learn from the previous one,” Kruger said. “Whether you win or lose, it doesn’t affect the next one or our goals on the season. For the most part, our guys have done a decent job of that.”

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