Lloyd Noble Center | Norman, OK | Tip 7 P.M. CT
TV: Big 12 Network (affiliate list) & ESPN Full Court | Internet: ESPN3.com
LRT Consecutive Game #212
For the first time in nearly two months, the Texas Longhorns are owners of a three-game winning streak. With their post-season hopes hanging precariously in the balance, the current run of success could not have come at a better time. During the streak, the Horns have moved up from Joe Lunardi’s “Next Four Out” — where five or six teams blocked their path to the NCAAs — to beyond the “Last Four In,” currently avoiding the play-in games in Dayton.
Of course, there’s still nearly four weeks of basketball until Selection Sunday. That is more than enough time for Texas to trip up in late February, something that has become a tradition over the last two years. The Longhorns have about as easy of a second-half conference schedule as they could get in a league as deep as the Big 12, but that’s not saying much. Tonight’s game against an Oklahoma team that’s just 3-9 in the conference qualifies as one of their easiest games left, but it’s deceptively tough. While the Sooners might look like an easy W on paper, escaping Norman with a win is truly a much more dangerous proposition.
By the numbers
First-year coach Lon Kruger has turned Oklahoma around faster than anyone could have imagined, rapidly rebuilding a team that was picked in the preseason to tie for last place with Texas Tech. The Sooners tore through a non-conference slate that included a lot of cupcake opponents, but they also logged quality wins over Arkansas and Oral Roberts. Heading into conference play, they were undoubtedly one of the league’s biggest surprise teams.
Big 12 play hasn’t been kind to OU, however. After a blowout loss in the conference opener to Missouri, the Sooners have been competitive in every game, but have had a tough time nailing down victories. They played the Jayhawks tough for a half in Norman, but let the league leaders pull away in the second. A road loss to A&M came in overtime, and would have been a victory if not for failure to execute at the end of regulation. Last week, a potential game-tying three-pointer clanged off the iron at the buzzer and allowed Mizzou to escape with a win.
A big part of the problem for Oklahoma has been a porous defense in league games. Against conference opponents, the Sooners allow more than 1.1 points per possession, the worst efficiency mark in the Big 12. With their two primary forwards checking in at just 6’8″, the Sooners are allowing Big 12 teams to kill them down low, with opponents hitting 54.1% of their shots from inside the arc. If Clint Chapman and Alexis Wangmene can continue their strong play in the post, the Longhorns should be able to take advantage of this weakness.
Offense hasn’t been much better for the Sooners in conference play, as they score just 0.968 points per possession. Oklahoma was one of the nation’s best three-point shooting teams in non-con play, but their numbers have dropped off dramatically against the Big 12. After knocking down 40.9% of their long-range attempts in non-conference games, OU has made just 31.6% of their threes in league games. This is mostly a result of shrinking the core rotation down to just seven players, as now Steven Pledger is the only consistent outside shooter who plays significant minutes. If the Longhorns can keep him from getting hot from outside, it will certainly damage OU’s hopes for an upset.
Texas fans can also be reassured by Oklahoma’s aversion to the free throw line. The Sooners have one of the worst free-throw rates in the country, earning less than one attempt at the charity stripe for every three field goal tries. For a Longhorn team that has been equally bad at sending teams to the line, this is excellent news. Key Texas players should be able to avoid foul trouble, while the rapidly-improving Longhorn defense won’t be scuttled by giving up free points.
Meet the Sooners
Junior guard Steven Pledger (No. 2) leads the Sooners with more than 17 points per game. As mentioned above, he’s the only true long-range threat that is seeing significant PT in conference play, where he’s averaging more than 34 minutes per game. He needs very little space to get up a shot, and uses his three-point threat to blow past tight man pressure for layups and open midrange pull-ups.
Pledger’s importance to the Sooner offense was never more apparent than in their ugly loss at Texas Tech on Saturday night. Billy Gillispie and the Red Raiders threw a box-and-one look at Oklahoma, isolating Pledger with the man defense. The junior scored just four points on 2-of-7 shooting, crippling the Oklahoma offense. As a result, the Sooners lost by 18 to a team that had yet to even log a conference win.
With Pledger locked down, the Sooners had to rely on point guard Sam Grooms (No. 1) to facilitate the offense. A transfer from Chipola College in Florida, Grooms is a quick, shifty guard who can penetrate the lane and create open looks for his teammates. The main problem with Grooms’ game is that he is a very spotty shooter, allowing defenses to sag off and limit that driving ability.
In the frontcourt, junior Andrew Fitzgerald (No. 4) provides the Sooners with an excellent inside-out threat. As one of the two tallest players in the starting five, the 6’8″ Fitzgerald is key to OU finding success on the glass. Down low, he still struggles at times with point blank looks, something that was a huge problem for him last year. He does boast an excellent midrange game, though, as he consistently knocks down 15-footers from the baseline and jumpers from the elbow. If the Longhorns use a man defense on the Sooners tonight, Chapman and Wangmene could have their hands full when he faces up outside the lane.
Mississippi State transfer Romero Osby (No. 24) is the other post presence for Oklahoma, and he is a much more traditional forward. Osby leads the team with 7.7 rebounds per game, and prefers to isolate on the block when he gets the ball. He’s much more athletic and quick than other big men, so he can put a quick drop step on his defender and get to the rack with ease. Fortunately, his midrange shot is nowhere near as consistent as Fitzgerald’s, so the Longhorns can limit his effectiveness by forcing him off the block prior to the entry passes.
Sophomore swingman Cameron Clark (No. 21) also provides some length for an undersized OU squad, checking in at 6’6″. As a freshman, he showcased a sweet shot and smooth driving ability, but has yet to really click in his sophomore campaign. Although his field goal percentage and scoring averages have dropped off this season, he still chips in some important rebounds for a team that is often overmatched on the glass.
Off the bench, junior guard Carl Blair (No. 14) gives the Sooners another ball-handler in the backcourt. As a sophomore who transferred from the University of New Orleans, Blair ran the point last season and posted the 31st-best assist rate in all of D-I hoops. As the understudy to Grooms this year, Blair has struggled on the offensive end. While he was once a steady point guard who was also a threat to score, he’s stumbled to just a 25.8% mark from the field this season. With Grooms already taking up the role of facilitator who can’t score, it’s tough to justify both he and Blair being on the court at the same time.
Big man C.J. Washington (No. 5) rounds out the core rotation for OU, but he’s only seeing the court for about 11 minutes per game in league play. Washington’s main role is to give Osby and Fitzgerald a breather, but he’s also called on to step up when they find themselves in foul trouble. If the Longhorns can attack the Sooner bigs and draw some whistles, Washington will be forced to play a bigger role in tonight’s game.
Keys to the game
1) Be aggressive – This has become a mainstay in this section of our game previews, but there’s no question that the Longhorn offense looks better when Myck Kabongo, Sheldon McClellan, and Julien Lewis put the ball on the floor and attack the paint. It not only leads to easy buckets inside, but it opens things up for J’Covan Brown off the ball and puts opposing big men in foul trouble. Against a pretty thin Oklahoma team, drawing a ton of whistles and earning points at the charity stripe is a recipe for success.
2) Dominate the glass – Although the Sooners are undersized by Big 12 standards, they are still one of the 25 best offensive rebounding teams in the country. The Longhorns have typically struggled with giving up second chances to their opponents this year, but did an amazing job keeping K-State off of the offensive glass in the second half of Saturday’s game. The Wildcats are an even better than the Sooners when it comes to reclaiming missed shots, so Texas has proven it is up to the task. If they can keep Oklahoma from extending possessions with offensive boards, the Longhorn defense should be able to shut down the Sooners.
3) Frustrate Pledger – Texas Tech showed how to neutralize OU’s top scorer on Saturday, so you can be sure that the Sooners will be looking to get him going early in this one. If the Longhorns can stick to Pledger and limit his scoring output for a second straight game, it will be tough for OU to find enough points to win. Fitzgerald and Osby can certainly score in bunches, but it’s hard to believe that they can carry their team to victory on their own.