Oklahoma Sooners and West Virginia battle for a chance at the Big 12 title game

OU looks for three-game season sweep against West Virginia with increased depth and its man in the middle

Sooners Illustrated will present three things to watch before every men’s basketball game during the 2015-16 season.

No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners (25-6) vs. No. 2  West Virginia Mountaineers (25-7)

TV/Radio: ESPNU/107.7 FM

Time: 8 p.m.

Series: Oklahoma, 8-3

Lattin’s impact

Sitting on the bench in the regular season finale against TCU in foul trouble, Oklahoma Sooners forward Khadeem Lattin learned how much of a difference he could make. One game later, Lattin saw that difference – not really on the stat sheet – but in the way Oklahoma played defense during its 79-76 victory against Iowa State.

Lattin blocked just two shots Thursday night, in a span of just a few seconds at the end of the first half. He spent the rest of the night altering attempts in the paint and making the Cyclones think twice about attacking the rim.

“I could see the difference,” he said. “They trust that I’m behind them. If I’m not able to block the shot, they trust me to change it. . . . A lot of times, that’s just as good. It leads to a rebound and some transition offense.”

For the first time in his career, Lattin played at least 17 minutes and didn’t commit a foul. It was his first game of the season without committing a foul and the first time since Christmas that he had fewer than two fouls in the game.

“It was really crucial for me not to get in foul trouble,” Lattin said. “Coach has talked to me about it and we worked on it. I feel like we got to a point where we’re comfortable with me not fouling at all.”

Lattin scored the first points of the game on a 14-foot jumper, which he had struggled to make at times this season, and contributed offensively with five points on just four shots. He also gave Oklahoma every bit of momentum heading into halftime. After Jordan Woodard hit a 3-pointer to give the Sooners a six-point lead, Lattin blocked two shots in succession.

First, he sent back a lay-up by Hallice Cooke. Then, he pursued the block, and knowing there was no time for a pass, he blocked Matt Thomas’ jump shot into the Sooners’ bench, which had emptied onto the court as the buzzer sounded to celebrate with Lattin.

Sticking with the plan

Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger had an idea of how he wanted to use his bench in the Big 12 Championship. Simply put, he wanted to use it more than he had during the regular season.

Dinjiyl Walker and Dante Buford checked in less than two minutes into the game, but for the first time all season, it wasn’t because of foul trouble or to spell a tired starter. Kruger went into his rotation early, and it paid off late.

“The other guys were a little fresher down the stretch, but again I thought Dinjiyl came in and played the first-half minutes really well,” Kruger said. “Dante gave us a good lift. A.K. (Manyang) got a bucket down. Good to see the bench guys step in there and have some production.”

Walker scored five points in the first half and finished with seven points. Buford helped defensively despite going 0-for-5 on the offensive end. For the first time all season, Oklahoma had more players see action than their opponent.

“We keep searching for more production out of the bench,” Kruger said before the Big 12 Championship. “We’re going to play more people early in this ballgame. Not more people but play people more minutes early than they have to try to get a deeper rotation going right from the start.”

Around this time last year, Oklahoma started to get big plays out of its bench. Lattin became more effective on the defensive end, and Frank Booker knocked down a few big shots. The Sooners didn’t find consistency in their depth, but they were able to get big plays, which can be just as effective.

Lattin sees that depth growing in a similar way this season.

“I have a lot of confidence in our bench,” Lattin said before the Big 12 Championship. “They're talented. They're young but they've definitely figured it out, and they've grown a lot from the beginning and we can see the progression so we trust them.”

Looking to sweep the ‘Neers

It might be a cliché, but it’s also true: The hardest thing to do in sports is beat a team three times. While most have had trouble with West Virginia’s press, Oklahoma has made pretty easy work of it. In two games against the Mountaineers, Oklahoma has turned the ball over 27 times – compared to the 18 forced turnovers per game West Virginia averaged this season.

Oklahoma turned it over just nine times in a route of the Mountaineers.

“Our guys, you know, they’ve got pride and want to handle the ball well, and they want to move the ball down the floor and limit the turnovers,” Kruger said. “But again, easier said than done. They just keep coming at you. They do a terrific job.”

The Sooners trio of experienced guards, who will make their 100th straight start together, have helped in keeping the Mountaineers’ full-court pressure chasing at times.

“West Virginia is a physical team, and we have to be physical just as much as them,” point guard Isaiah Cousins said. “Coach Kruger gets us prepared every time we played them. He really focused on being physical, and as a team, we just find the open spot to handle their pressure. Every possession, we take care of the ball.”

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