Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 8 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN2
LRT Consecutive Game #248
It has been eight years since the Oklahoma Sooners have come to Austin and knocked off the Longhorns at the Frank Erwin Center. With Texas struggling to a 4-10 mark in league play and the Sooners looking downright dominant in recent weeks, tonight could be the night that Lon Kruger and Oklahoma finally break that streak.
For the Sooners, ending the road woes against their Red River rivals would only be a bonus. Current seniors Steven Pledger, Andrew Fitzgerald, and Casey Arent have never made it to the NCAA tournament during their four years in Norman, and that dream is now just weeks away from being realized. In Joe Lunardi’s latest S-curve update ($), the Sooners are now considered “safely in,” meaning they have odds of greater than 80% to make the field. Barring a complete meltdown over the last two weeks of the season, Oklahoma should make its long-awaited return to March Madness. Now, it’s all about seeding.
Lunardi currently has the Sooners slotted as a 9-seed, meaning that they would have the unenviable task of matching up with a 1-seed if they were to survive to the third round. Of Oklahoma’s four remaining regular season games, three are against the bottom four teams in the Big 12. The fourth is against Iowa State, a team which blew out Oklahoma in Ames earlier this year. Fortunately for OU, the Cyclones have struggled mightily on the road, meaning that Oklahoma could conceivably run the table and finish 13-5 in the conference. Ken Pomeroy has the Sooners favored in every game remaining, and his win probabilities give OU a cumulative WP of 30.5% to finish 4-0.
With other teams playing and losing down the stretch, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for Oklahoma to climb a few seed lines and avoid that tough second-round matchup. Tonight is the biggest road test remaining for the Sooners, and it could easily be classified as a “trap game” with Iowa State waiting for OU on Saturday. It looks extremely unlikely that Oklahoma could miss the NCAAs at this point, but a loss tonight would certainly make it tougher to climb off of those 8 and 9-seed lines.
Meet the Sooners
For an in-depth look at the Oklahoma roster, check out LRT’s game preview from the first meeting between these two teams.
The first match-up
Oklahoma and Texas got off to an ugly start when the teams first met on MLK Day. The Longhorns turned it over eight times before the first media timeout, while the Sooners were unable to convert that into a big lead thanks to two of their own turnovers and five missed shots. Texas settled down and managed to recover from that brutal start, pulling ahead by as many as four points midway through the first half.
With just under seven minutes to go, sophomore forward Jonathan Holmes broke a bone in his hand and had to leave the game. Although a triple from Sheldon McClellan would give Texas its largest lead at five points just a few minutes later, the loss of Holmes’ interior presence would quickly become the difference in the game.
With Holmes out of action, OU’s Romero Osby took over and had the breakout performance of what will likely be an all-conference season. The senior big man scored Oklahoma’s last eight points before the half, and he finished with a monster line of 29 points, eight boards, and two blocks. Fellow forward Amath M’Baye also had a great performance, although his numbers were overshadowed by the gargantuan effort by Osby. M’Baye added 15 points and five boards to help the Sooners to victory.
The Longhorns did manage to make things interesting in the final minutes, as McClellan single-handedly kept Texas in it and Ioannis Papapetrou sank some desperation threes in the waning seconds. The Longhorns trailed by as many as 11 points with less than two minutes to go, but Papapetrou’s pair of threes made the final score look a little more respectable. The Greek forward finished with 12 points, but it was McClellan’s 25 that kept Texas from getting blown out. On the night, Sheldon took nearly a third of the team’s shots and posted an excellent 50% mark from the field.
Although that performance against Texas was by far the best of the year for Osby, he has not slowed down over the last five weeks. In the nine games since beating the Longhorns, he is averaging 14 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Making things even more difficult for opponents is the consistent play from OU’s other forward, M’Baye. The Wyoming transfer has been nearly as impressive in league play, averaging 10.5 and 5.9 in his last nine games.
Most importantly, the Sooners are also reaping the benefits of a hot Steven Pledger. Coming into the season, expectations were high for the senior, who was the leading returning scorer in the league. Last year, he made more than 41% of his threes, so naturally there would be some amount of regression. Unfortunately, the drop-off was much steeper than Pledger and OU fans had hoped, as he made just 33.6% of his long-range looks through the first 23 games of the year.
However, it seems that Pledger has chosen the right time to peak. In the team’s last three games, he’s made 56.4% of his shots from the field, including 52.2% of his threes. The Sooners have been in the bottom half of D-I hoops when it comes to sinking their treys, and as a result they have taken only about a quarter of their shots from long range. Having Pledger re-emerge as a three-point threat gives opposing defenses another facet to game plan for, and makes it even tougher to focus on stopping that inside tandem of Osby and M’Baye.
Pledger is not the only senior to step up in recent weeks. Sam Grooms has taken charge at the point, even earning a start on Saturday against Baylor. With Buddy Hield still sidelined with a broken bone in his foot and Isaiah Cousins scuttling in conference play, Grooms’ steady leadership has kept OU clicking.
Although he’s not much of a long-range threat, Grooms has been more aggressive with the ball recently, finding the cracks created when Osby and M’Baye step out and stretch the defense. The senior guard has 13 assists in his last three games, and he shot 81.8% from the field in the team’s heartbreaking overtime loss at Oklahoma State. Grooms took a hard fall in Saturday’s win over Baylor and appeared to injure his hip, but did return to action. With a few days of rest, it’s unlikely that any lingering effects will slow him down tonight.
Keys to the game
1) Limit second chance points – The Sooners do not shoot the ball exceptionally well, with their 48% effective field goal mark actually checking in just a bit below the national average. OU makes up for that with fairly strong numbers on the offensive glass, while the Longhorns have had difficulty all season in keeping opponents from reclaiming missed shots.
In the first meeting between these two teams, Texas did manage to hold OU below its season average, allowing the Sooners to corral only 30% of their missed shots. If Texas hopes to pull off the upset at home tonight, the team will once again have to close out their defensive possessions with strong rebounding.
2) Attack offensively – The Longhorns have looked like a competent team on offense when they actually drive the basketball and move it with quick, smart passing. Unfortunately, that approach tends to be the exception rather than the rule this season, with the Horns instead settling for long jumpers at the end of possessions, often with a defender in their face.
While being aggressive will help a Texas team that has struggled to hit jump shots this year, it will also hopefully saddle Oklahoma with some fouls. While Fitzgerald is still a serviceable forward, the drop-off in talent after M’Baye and Osby is considerable. Getting either of those players to the bench will be a huge boost for Texas’ chances.
Aggression can also draw fouls on the Oklahoma guards, which can expose some depth issues there, as well. With Hield’s broken foot, Cousins becomes the primary back-up in the backcourt, and he is mired in a terrible slump. If Grooms finds himself battling foul trouble, as he did on Saturday, the Longhorns would be able to take advantage of Cousins and force mistakes by the frustrated freshman.
3) Limit mistakes – The Sooners are not a team that pressures defensively and forces many turnovers, but that didn’t stop Texas from coughing it up on nearly every possession in the first five minutes of the game in Norman. With Myck Kabongo now at the point, that hopefully will not be as much of an issue for the Horns tonight. Still, Demarcus Holland and Papapetrou have thrown their share of questionable passes this season, and both should see big minutes in this one. The Texas offense is too anemic to be able to waste possessions and still win games, especially against a team that doesn’t usually try to cause turnovers.