Full-court press: Oklahoma State

Sooners looking for first postseason win under Kruger, third victory against Pokes

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

No. 6 Oklahoma State (18-12) vs. No. 3 Oklahoma (21-9)

When: 8 p.m. CST

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

Series: Oklahoma 133-95,

Third-time charm

They say one of the hardest thing to do in sports is to beat a team three times in one year. Oklahoma found that out the hard way last season, when after sweeping Baylor, it lost to the Bears in the first game of the Big 12 Tournament.

It’s even harder when that team you have to beat is one of your biggest rivals.

Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger has a minor change he’d like to make to that saying.

“It’s difficult because they’re a good team,” Kruger said. “People say it’s hard to beat a team three times, which is true. It’s especially true when the other team is good. . . . Our guys understand that. They respect O-State. They recall how hard fought both games were against them during the season.”

The Sooners beat Oklahoma State by 18 points in Norman on a perfect shooting performance from guard Buddy Hield. Then, Oklahoma won in Stillwater – the first Big 12 team to do that this season but not the last.

Oklahoma has now won five straight against the Cowboys, who are playing for their NCAA Tournament lives potentially, and six of the past seven games. Except for his first game, Kruger hasn’t lost to the Sooners’ in-state rival.

Hield has a slight addition he’d like to make also to that whole three wins-in-a-season thing, especially because Oklahoma is trying to win for the sixth straight time against the Cowboys.

“It’s gonna be very different,” Hield said. “. . . Teams get angry. You know they’ll give their best, all they got. We’ve just got to be disciplined and sound and be ready to compete. Those guys compete a lot.”

Made up to win

There’s a different look to the Sooners this season. After losing in the first round in each NCAA tournament the past two years, including an upset loss last year, Oklahoma needed a different look.

Last year, it was all offense for Oklahoma. This year, the Sooners seem to like defense, at least a little bit more.

“We’re much better positioned, personality-wise, than we were a year ago to win a game in the tournament,” Kruger said. “That doesn’t mean we will. I like the ability to get some stops, the ability to be a little bit more physical – tougher – on the boards. I think this group has taken the natural step.”

The Oklahoma defense is allowing 13 points fewer per game than it did the season before, while still averaging 72 points per game. Although, that is nine points lower than last year’s average.

Last year, offense was all the rage for the Sooners. They’re still shooting the same percentage this year, though.

Oklahoma is defensive-based this season. The nine wins in 11 tries to end the regular season is a result of that. The Sooners’ philosophy won’t – and can’t – change now that a loss can end a season.

“You have to do what you’ve done to get here,” Kruger said. “It’s not like you’re going to change everything because it’s postseason. Generally, you just have to guard and rebound. That’s a good starting point. Take care of the ball; get a good shot each time down: Those are things we talk about throughout the season.

“It’s a little bit different mentally because if you lose, it’s over. If we lose in Kansas City, it’s over in that tournament. Or in the NCAAs, it’s over. It’s a little different pressure there. Still, you hope to have the urgency that you’ve always had. You don’t do things differently. You just have to try and do them a little better.”

Playing for the NCAAs

Kruger said Monday that he’d be disappointed if seven teams from the Big 12, which is widely regarded as the best conference in the country, didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. That, he said though, was out of his control.

What’s still in Oklahoma’s control is where they wind up in the NCAA Tournament bracket – well sort of.

“I don’t know where we are at to start with,” Kruger said. “You always feel like, if you win a couple in the best conference in the country, then you give yourself a chance to bump up a line. I haven’t thought about that in terms of specifically if we have to win one or win two and where does that take us. Does it take us from 4 to 3 or 3 to 2?

“It’s good to be in that conversation. What it means? I don’t know.”

Iowa State, Oklahoma, Baylor and West Virginia are all currently projected by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, NCAA Tournament bracketology expert, to be between No. 3 and No. 5 seeds. It’s possible that they’ll all face each other more than once at some point this weekend. Baylor and West Virginia play in the first round. Iowa State and Oklahoma could play in the semifinals if they both win.

Obviously, any of the four could make the championship.

Kansas seems to be slotted into a No. 2 seed, and both Oklahoma State and Texas are on the bubble.

The race between the middle four is still wide open.

“I would imagine it would be normal or natural for the outcome of those games with teams stacked close together, to kind of one will go up one will go down,” Kruger said. “That’s the way it is, especially when you’re in a conference like this. Everyone is kind of right there. There will be a couple that slide up and a couple that slide down. I think that’s only fair. . . . What a great league, though. What a great league.

“I don’t ever recall anything close to this, in terms of the quality and the depth. Obviously, teams that aren’t projected in the tournament are really tough teams too. It makes it even more difficult.”

Kruger laughed when he said that it seems impossible to ignore Lunardi, who always seems to be right.

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