Sooners Illustrated will present three things to watch before every men’s basketball game during the 2015-16 season.
No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners (12-0) at No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks (11-1)
TV/Radio: ESPN/107.7 FM
Time: 8 p.m.
Series: Kansas, 100-42.
1 vs. 1?
Since 1950, there have only been 40 matchups between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country in college basketball. To say the least, it’s rare – less than one every year. That last came in 2013. But here in January, Oklahoma and Kansas are likely to be a matchup between the top two teams in college basketball when the polls or released mid-day Monday.
The teams have been in this situation before. Near the end of the 1989-90 season, top-ranked Oklahoma knocked off Kansas on the way to finish the regular season as the No. 1 team in the country.
What makes this game a little bit different is that both teams could be ranked No. 1. Kansas is the likely No. 1 team in the AP poll while the Sooners should make the jump to the No. 1 team in the USA Today coaches poll.
“It’s a fun opportunity. It’s a big game,” Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield said. “Everybody in America will be watching, so you’ve got to go out there and have fun. You can’t get too riled up. We need to play within ourselves and do what we do best.”
The first Big Monday of new year could wind up being the biggest Big Monday of the entire season. It’s a fact no lost on Oklahoma, which said it still enjoyed the victory against No. 11 Iowa State on Saturday night but was back in the gym early Sunday morning for practice.
“It doesn't happen a lot of times,” Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler said. “This is the first time for all of us so we're excited. We're ready to play a good team. It's always fun playing at Kansas, the crowd, they're always a good team. So, we're ready to go up there and show what we've been working on and just how good we are.”
Breaking through the Phog
The last time Oklahoma won at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, coach Lon Kruger was coaching at Florida, and it’s doubtful any of the current players on the roster were even born at the time. Assistant coach Steven Henson had just graduated from Kansas State a few years earlier. In 1993, Oklahoma went to Lawrence and upset a Kansas team bound for a Big 8 championship, 80-77. That Oklahoma team made it to the second round of the NIT after finishing Big 8 play with a .500 record.
This year’s team is a little bit different – most experienced and more talented.
“This is the best shot we’ve got,” Hield said.
The Sooners are clearly talented enough to be ranked in the top two in the country after starting the season with 12 straight victories. This really might be Oklahoma’s best chance to end a 14-game road losing skid to the Jayhawks, who haven’t lost a Big 12 Conference home game in almost three years and have lost just four in the last decade.
“You go on the road in a tough atmosphere for a well-hyped game, you realize you still have to go play,” said Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, who was recruited by Kansas before choosing Kansas State out of high school. “You’ve gotta play each possession. You can’t get too amped to the point where you’re not executing. You’re not doing thing you want to do. Hopefully experience helps in all those areas.
“It’s still easier said than done. Just based on record, it’s a tough place. And again, they’re very good.”
Walker shining off the bench
Playing off the bench is always a mixed bag of playing time, shot opportunities and production. For Oklahoma guard Dinjiyl Walker, he got a big piece of the bag Saturday night in a victory against Iowa State.
In just 11 minutes, Walker had 10 points. It was his second-highest total of the season but by far his most productive night.
“He was great,” Kruger said. “He's been doing that for us consistently. He came in tonight and attacked the paint, made a couple jumpers. That's become his role. He expects to do it and his teammates expect it and it's a hard role to play and one that he's playing very well right now and driving.”
Walker was unsure of himself last year and even early this season but has found a role that fits him perfectly. More so, he understands that his role is to provide a spark off the bench. That spark was points Saturday. It could be anything Monday night.