No. 18/21 Oklahoma is 14-2 on the young season and, with a 3-0 league mark, is just a half-game behind Kansas at the top the league standings. The Sooners have lost only to a pair of Top 10 teams (Duke, Washington) while posting a 77-65 home win over then-No. 11 Connecticut on January 10. Texas, of course, is fresh off of an impressive 75-61 win over No. 5 Oklahoma State, to raise its record to 14-3, 3-1 in Big 12 play.
Barnes pointed out that Texas launched a first-period 15-0 run against the Cowboys with Tucker sidelined with foul trouble, giving the Horns a lead it would never relinquish. But posting a third-consecutive win at Lloyd Noble Arena (and sixth-straight overall vs. the Sooners) would be a tall order even if Tucker and Aldridge weren't in street clothes.
"We've had some great games with them," Barnes said. "OU has an outstanding team. Their inside game is terrific, yet they shoot the ball well from beyond the arc."
All-American JC-transfer Taj Gray is living up to his billing as the Preseason Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. The 6-8 forward from Redlands (OK) Community College leads OU in both scoring (14.4 ppg) and rebounding (8.4 rpg). He has also notched a team-leading 31 blocks. Then again, Preseason Big 12 Rookie of the Year Daniel Gibson has also backed-up his extensive press clippings, coming off a career-best 27 points and 10 rebounds against OSU. With Tucker out of the lineup, Gibson becomes Texas' leading scorer (12.0 ppg).
It's not every day that a team finds itself in a situation where it becomes incumbent upon older players to compensate for the loss of underclassmen.
"It's up to us now, as older guys, to help this team out and not be affected by it," junior F Brad Buckman said following the loss of his two frontcourt mates.
Buckman also knows OU will be going for the jugular when the archrivals tip-off in a CBS regional telecast.
"They'll have it out for us," he said. "They know we have two players out. They'll be ready to play, but so will we."
Texas may take cold comfort in that no other conference opponent can better empathize with its plight than the Sooners. Last season, Oklahoma was decimated by injuries and failed to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in ten years. The biggest loss was when F Kevin Bookout opted for reparative shoulder surgery in early in February. This season, Bookout is OU's second-leading scorer (13.2 ppg) and rebounder (6.7 rpb)
"Bookout is back and he's made a big difference," Barnes noted.
Texas may also find inspiration in the fact that the program rebounded remarkably well when it was in a similar situation three years ago this month. The Horns lost leading scorer Chris Owens to a season-ending knee injury at Utah during the last non-conference road game of the 2001-02 campaign and faced the daunting task of opening Big 12 play north of the Red River against a highly-ranked opponent. Texas emerged from its road-trip at No. 5 Oklahoma State with a gutsy 70-61 triumph on the way to the first of three straight Sweet Sixteen appearances.
Sydmill Harris, who will start in place of Tucker Saturday, was a freshman when Texas engineered the upset at Stillwater.
"The lesson to be learned from that," Harris said, "is that you can be down but not out."