The old-school design, the rowdy student section, the educated crowd, the major swings and the usually ultra-talented team on the court: Lon Kruger and Oklahoma are well versed in the lore and legend of Phog Allen Fieldhouse, where Kansas has lost just four Big 12 games in the last decade.
Kruger first played in Lawrence as the point guard for Kansas State in the 1970s, and he coached in his only other top-10 matchup before this season when he led the Florida Gators against Kansas in the December of 1994.
That was just 22 months after Oklahoma last won on the road against the Jayhawks.
None of the current Sooners were even alive when Oklahoma last won in Lawrence, KS, but all Oklahoma has done in the last three years its inch closer and closer to a victory – losing by 13, eight and seven points. But Oklahoma led last year by seven points with three minutes to play before collapsing.
Coming in as the No. 2 team in the country and ranked No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, Oklahoma (12-0) has matched its best start in the last 28 years and might finally be ready for the ‘Phog.’
“Last year, we didn’t have that game-closing mentality,” said Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield, who has scored 20 points in the last six games. “We didn’t know how to finish games last year. This year, we’ve finished every close game we’ve had. That comes from leadership and experience and coaching.
“We’re gonna use that to our advantage this year. I know it’s a big game. It’s one of the best places to play in America. But I feel like our chances are good.”
Oklahoma didn’t celebrate long Saturday night, when Oklahoma won its fourth game of the season by less than ten points.
The Sooners know what awaits them.
“It’s as good a team that they’ve had since we’ve been here, and they’ve all been good,” Kruger said of the Jayhawks. “We’re splitting hairs here a little bit. They shoot the ball so well. They’re shooting it great. They’ve got a lot of big guys to go with that. That makes them very good.”
And then there’s the Phog – with a crowd that roars, and more importantly, knows when to roar.
Most of the roster has felt the ebbs of the stadium by now. Six rotation players have been in the atmosphere before – a pair have done it once, point guard Jordan Woodard and Ryan Spangler have been twice and Isaiah Cousins and Hield are going up for the fourth time.
“I enjoy it,” Hield said. “But I just don’t enjoy leaving it afterwards because I never got a win. Hopefully I can change that around this year and sneak out a win. I think we can do it.”
Hield has occasionally talked to opposing players before big games, playfully jarring on upcoming foes like Georges Niang, whom Hield still considers a friend. He didn’t do that this year, at least not yet.
He didn’t send anything out to any of the Jayhawks either – nothing to Wayne Selden, nothing to Perry Ellis. Hield has a focus about him. He dreamed of winning at Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
Hield has one more chance.
“This is competition now,” Hield said. “It’s all business.”