In a perfect world, this Saturday would have been Oklahoma chance at its first Big 12 regular season championship in a decade – only the second Big 12 title in school history. It also would – or should – have been a chance to finally ended Kansas’ run of dominance.
It’s not that, though. Kansas comes into Lloyd Noble Center on Saturday with the outright regular season title already clinched. The best Oklahoma can do is second place.
Obviously, the game does not have the weight that the Sooners hoped it would. That doesn’t mean that it’s not still a big game as Oklahoma eyes the postseason, where the Sooners haven’t won under current coach Lon Kruger.
“It hasn’t changed for us,” Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler said. “We know owe Kansas one. We didn’t play our best at Kansas, so we know we have to get a win right here. We don’t wanna lose this thing going into the Big 12 Tournament or the NCAA Tournament. We want to get on a roll this Saturday and keep it going through March.”
There might not be a hotter team in the country than Oklahoma (20-9, 11-6 Big 12), except for maybe top-ranked and undefeated Kentucky. The Sooners won eight of nine games in a 30-day period before falling to Iowa State on Monday.
Even against the Cyclones, the Sooners had the perfect game plan – playing their best 25 minutes of the entire season before everything fell apart.
That 15-minute breakdown cost Oklahoma it’s shot at the Big 12 regular season title but not its momentum.
“You like winning that last conference game,” Kruger said. “. . . The momentum going into the Big 12 Tournament and the NCAA Tournament makes this game very big for us.”
Ever since the start of the Sooners’ run, they’ve made it a habit of bouncing back quickly. Oklahoma is playing its best basketball right now, which is exactly what Kruger could have wanted.
Kruger said that the Sooners’ practice habits have made them resilient. With senior night set to honor TaShawn Thomas, D.J. Bennett and James Fraschilla – and maybe Buddy Hield, who could be playing his final home game with Oklahoma on Saturday.
“All year, we’ve always talked about just playing the next game,” Kruger said. “Whether you win a big game or lose a big game, you have to prepare for the next one. Back in January, we talked about doing that 18 times during the course of the year. We knew it was going to be a grind every night out.
“The group as a whole has bounced back well all year. They’ve been a group that has practiced well. That’s probably why they’ve bounced back well.” Lose against Kansas on Saturday and the Sooners could fall to the No. 4 seed, which would set up a potential Big 12 semifinals matchup against the Jayhawks. It could also cost the Sooners a seed or two in the NCAA Tournament at well.
A win would allow Oklahoma to avoid Kansas until the Big 12 Championship game, should both teams make it that far. It would also likely guarantee the Sooners a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament and a chance of going to Omaha, the closest first-round site to Norman.
“In February, we’ve played our best basketball,” Kruger said. “Clearly, based on record but you always want to do better.”