Oklahoma went up to Lawrence, Kan., a little more than a month ago as the No. 2 team in the country but didn't go with something to prove nor something to learn about itself.
All they wanted to do was crack the allure of Phog Allen Fieldhouse, a place where Oklahoma hasn’t won since 1993. Still, they did learn something by taking the top-ranked Jayhawks to triple overtime and arguably having more chances to win the game than the home team. Oklahoma left angry at the loss but believing that it was still the best team in the country.
It taught Oklahoma something: That it belonged there.
“To go on the road in a tough environment in a tough place and compete toe-to-toe for the most part and just come up short, it proved that they can do that,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said.
Maybe it wasn’t immediately certain then but a team that had lost plenty of close games just the year before found out for sure – or maybe just told everyone else – that this year was going to be a little different.
Since the loss, No. 3 Oklahoma (20-3, 8-3) has won four games by three points or fewer after it notoriously gave away late leads last season. The Sooners have done that after learning the value of a possession at Kansas. One possession difference in regulation and Khadeem Lattin isn’t on the line in the final seconds to try and win it.
An extra basket in overtime or just one more stop in double overtime, and there is no triple overtime. There’s no chance for Buddy Hield to throw away the final possession.
“It just reminded them of the value of each possession and that they have to do things a little bit better to beat a top club on the road,” Kruger said.
So naturally, the rematch was circled almost immediately.
That comes at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Both teams are very different than just five weeks ago, when the up-and-coming Sooners were unbeaten. Now, Oklahoma is a proven commodity in college basketball, having lost one week and still remained the No. 1 team in the country.
Kansas (20-4, 8-3) is different too, but it’s just as difficult to bring down with a frontcourt playing more consistently.
“We’re eager to step up and face the challenge,” Lattin said. “We know what we have to do and we’re gonna do it.”
An experienced Oklahoma team came into this season looking to end the Jayhawks’ stranglehold on the Big 12 Conference – a run of 11-straight titles. Before that late night in Phog Allen in the middle of January, Oklahoma had wanted to do that.
On that night, they showed they could really do it.
“We proved to ourselves that we could go into any place and play,” Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler said.
Now, Oklahoma has to prove that it can defend its home court once more. It doesn’t have a choice, if it still wants the Big 12 title.