Posted by Ryan Clark at 12:25PM

#24/23 Texas Longhorns (21-7 overall, 10-5 Big 12) at Oklahoma Sooners (20-8, 9-6)
Lloyd Noble Center | Norman, OK | Tip: 3 P.M. CT
TV: Big 12 Network (Affiliate list)/ESPN Full Court/ESPN3
Vegas: Oklahoma -4.5 | Pomeroy: Oklahoma, 83-78 (66%)

The Longhorns are looking to avenge their only home loss in conference play as they head to Norman this afternoon to take on the Sooners. In addition to trying to split the season series, the Horns are also still barely alive in their pursuit of a shared conference title, and are in the midst of a tough battle for the league’s No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.

The Sooners are currently tied for fourth in the league with Kansas State, just a game behind Iowa State and Texas with three games to play. Since Oklahoma won the first meeting with Texas, a loss today would doom the Longhorns in a head-to-head tiebreaker, and also bury them in any multi-team tiebreakers involving OU. Although the final week of the schedule is more favorable to Texas than the other three teams, the tiebreaker math means that a loss this afternoon would make it very tough for the Horns to earn that No. 2 seed in the Big 12 tournament

Keys to the game

1) Crash the boards – In the first meeting between these two teams, the Sooners dominated the rebounding battle, holding the Horns to just a 26.7% mark on the offensive glass. On the other end, OU reclaimed 45.9% of its own misses, including some back-breaking boards in the game’s final minutes that led to key second-chance points.

While the Longhorn bigs will have to do a much better job to win the battle of the boards this afternoon, the Texas guards also must step up. Although Ryan Spangler (No. 00) and Tyler Neal (No. 15) did a good job on the boards, it was the quick, athletic guards and wings who consistently outraced Texas to the ball. If the Longhorns can’t keep OU from winning rebounds and extending possessions, it will be very tough to avenge their earlier loss this afternoon.

2) Pound it inside – The Longhorns found quite a bit of success early in the second half when they ran the offense through Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley down low. Foul trouble plagued Holmes throughout the game, and the Texas offense clearly struggled when he was cooling his heels on the bench. While he obvioulsy has to avoid that same scenario this afternoon, Texas has to exploit its size advantage all game, even when the frontcourt reserves are on the court.

3) Clog the gaps – Much of Oklahoma’s offense comes from the slashing ability of its young, talented backcourt. However, the Sooners have proven that they will often settle for long jumpers when penetration isn’t there, even forcing challenged looks with a defender in their face. If the Longhorns can keep the OU guards in front of them and shade off the ball to discourage drives, they may be able to slow the Sooner offense down and give themselves a chance for the road win.

4) Challenge shooters – Oklahoma is full of great shooters who can knock it down all over the court. Texas quickly learned that fact in the first meeting, as poor defense led to numerous wide-open looks in the first half on which the Sooners capitalized. While it can be tough to take away driving lanes while also preventing open looks, Texas can do so with quick rotation and good communication on D. If the Horns are able to stop the drive, but leave shooters open on the arc as a result, Oklahoma could snow Texas under with a flurry of threes. Neutralizing the high-powered Oklahoma offense is a tall order, so the Longhorns certainly have their work cut out for them on the road this afternoon.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 3:34PM

Oklahoma Sooners (11-2) at Texas Longhorns (11-2)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 7 P.M. CT | TV: LHN

After a surprisingly strong non-conference campaign, the Texas Longhorns are ready to tip off against tougher competition in the Big 12. The Horns — who are the sixth-youngest team in Division I, according to Ken Pomeroy — reeled off 11 wins in 13 non-conference games, including an impressive road victory against a talented, albeit inconsistent, North Carolina team.

Texas was not the only surprise team in the Big 12, though. Their opponents in tonight’s conference opener, the Oklahoma Sooners, have also posted an 11-2 mark. After losing three starters from last year’s team that went to the NCAA tournament, Oklahoma was expected to be a middle-of-the-pack team that might hang around on the bubble. Although the Sooners will probably still finish in the middle of the table in a fairly loaded Big 12, they have shown that even the top-tier teams in the league should be worried about playing them.

Lon Kruger has OU exceeding preseason expectations
(Photo credit: Nate Billings/The Oklahoman)

If the Sooners are truly going to live up to the new expectations they built in non-conference play, they will have to overcome some long odds in the first few weeks of the season. League schedule-makers did Lon Kruger no favors, giving the Sooners road trips to Texas, Kansas State, and Baylor in their first five games, while tabbing Kansas and Iowa State as the teams to visit Lloyd-Noble during that stretch.

Making an early statement in the Big 12 would be quite impressive for OU, given that opening gauntlet. Pomeroy gives the Sooners odds of no greater than 39% to win any of their first five games, with OU having a 32% chance to win tonight’s tilt in Austin, their most-winnable of the three road games. Looking at the cumulative odds for that stretch shows that Pomeroy gives the Sooners a 15% chance to be sitting at 0-5 in league play on January 19th.

By the numbers

Texas fans have seen some up-tempo basketball from the Horns this season, but it has been nothing compared to the track meets going on in Norman. Oklahoma has the ninth-fasted adjusted tempo in D-I hoops, according to Pomeroy, squeezing in 74.6 possessions per game. With the Horns having 72 possessions per game, fans should be treated to some exciting, up-and-down action tonight.

Oklahoma plays with a four-out, one-in look, but the team still has fared pretty well on the offensive glass. The Sooners have reclaimed nearly 35% of their missed shots, thanks in large part to guards and wings that rebound really well for their size. Oklahoma did have trouble when they played a much larger Michigan State team, as they won only 20.5% of their offensive rebounding chances in that game. Against the size of Texas’ frontcourt, OU could face similar struggles tonight.

Keeping the Sooners away from offensive rebounds will be especially important for Texas tonight because Oklahoma generally doesn’t miss very many shots to begin with. OU’s effective field-goal percentage of 53% ranks them 56th in the country, and it’s not a number inflated by layups. OU has a handful of good shooters who can knock down midrange looks and they are also accurate behind the arc, even though a long-range attack isn’t a key aspect of their gameplans.

All told, the Sooners score an adjusted 1.14 points per possession. Although their defensive numbers of 1.032 adjusted PPP are just a shade below the national average, that per-possession disparity adds up in a hurry when the game is played at Oklahoma’s pace. Since Texas loves to play nearly as quickly as the Sooners do, the Longhorn defense will have to step up tonight. The Texas offense is simply not reliable enough to keep up with Oklahoma’s if the Sooners are scoring at their usual rate.

Ryan Spangler is Oklahoma’s lone presence inside
(Photo credit: Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman)

Meet the Sooners

Oklahoma lacks the interior size it enjoyed with Amath M’Baye and Romero Osby last season, so Coach Kruger has adjusted his approach this season. The Sooners typically trot out only one big a time, with former Gonzaga Bulldog Ryan Spangler (No. 00) holding that role in the starting five, despite checking in at just 6’8″.

Spangler plays much bigger than his listed height, providing excellent interior defense and great performances on the glass. The sophomore has scored a ton of hoops on tip-ins this season and has a defensive rebounding rate of 23.8%, ranking him 73rd in Division I. Spangler has also shown the ability to face up opposing forwards and centers and take them off the bounce, but he has yet to prove that he has much of a shot. Teams can easily turn him into a one-dimensional threat by giving him space anytime he leaves the block, but they must always be aware of his location on the floor so they can get a body on him as soon as a shot goes up.

The team’s leading scorer is senior Cameron Clark (No. 21), an exciting player who averages 18.5 points per game, or roughly 21% of OU’s scoring. Clark made a splash as a sophomore before returning to a reserve role on last year’s loaded squad and ultimately ascending to the leadership role in his senior year. He is an incredibly athletic player who has always been known for his highlight-reel dunks, but he also has a good shot that is accurate all over the floor. Although his midrange game can be streaky at times, Clark has made 50% of his threes, but averages less than three of those attempts per game.

Even though Clark can sometimes go through cold spells from the midrange, he always finds a way to score. In Monday night’s overtime loss to Louisiana Tech, the senior was just 7-of-17 from the floor, but repeatedly attacked the basket to earn trips to the line. He also proved just how clutch of a player he can be when he grabbed an airballed three and raced out to the perimeter to hit his own game-tying, fadeaway triple with just 0.6 seconds left on the clock in regulation.

OU’s other aggressive scorer is sophomore guard Buddy Hield (No. 24). Hailing from the Bahamas, Hield has a good understanding of how to vary his speeds to beat the defense, and he has great strength and body control to score through contact. Like all of the Oklahoma guards, Hield is also very good at passing while driving to the hoop, often setting up Spangler underneath or kicking out to open teammates for midrange jumpers or threes.

Freshman point guard Jordan Woodard (No. 10) has been very impressive in his first year at Oklahoma, but he is coming off of the roughest outing of his young career. In the loss to Louisiana Tech, Woodard coughed it up eight times against just two assists, and made only 31% of his shots. Typically, he is another aggressive perimeter player for the Sooners, repeatedly attacking the rim for easy points or trips to the free throw line. Like Hield, Woodard’s driving ability often opens things up for little dumpoffs in the paint or kickouts to open teammates, and his personal assist rate of 26.9% ranks him in the Top 200 nationally.

Sophomore guard Isaiah Cousins (No. 11) rounds out the starting five for Oklahoma, and he is yet another solid shooter for the Sooners. He doesn’t take many three-point attempts, but has made 41.4% of his tries this season. Understandably, Cousins fires up a few more from long range when he’s feeling it, so he usually knocks down two or three if he makes any.

Cousins is also an excellent defender, thanks to quick hands, good footwork, and length that can clog passing lanes and make it tough for smaller guards. He often comes up with a nice swipe or two in each game by knocking it away from an oblivious rebounder or by stripping opponents when providing help defense. Many teams have been flustered by Oklahoma’s active defense, and Cousins’ skills on that end of the court are a big reason why.

Keys to the game

Texas has to stop the drives of Hield and the OU guards
(Photo credit: Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman)

1) Limit penetration – Although they have good shooters, everything starts with dribble penetration for the Sooners. If Texas can limit the number of times Oklahoma beats them with the bounce, it forces the Sooners into taking challenged jumpers instead of allowing wide-open looks on kickouts. The Sooners still have the shooters to knock down some of those tough looks, but if the Longhorns want to keep Oklahoma from lighting up the scoreboard, they have to keep the OU guards in front of them.

2) Win transition battle – Both teams like to get the ball up the court in a hurry and score easy points before the defense is set, so tonight’s game could very well come down to which team is able to get more fast break buckets. The Longhorn defense can’t afford to give up transition hoops to an offense that is already going to be tough to stop, and their offense certainly needs to get as many points as it can without having to score in the half-court.

3) Exploit size advantage – The Longhorns are going to enjoy a definitive size advantage in this one, although they will likely have to use Cameron Ridley in short spurts thanks to the tempo of the game. Exploiting that size advantage is easier said than done, however. Oklahoma loves to trap and swarm everywhere on the court, but especially on the blocks. The Texas bigs have had issues this season with slow decision-making, something that will be deadly against a pressure defense.

Not only do the Longhorn bigs need to be quick and decisive with the ball on the block, but they will also need to contribute in the pick-and-roll game. Clark will likely be tasked with guarding Jonathan Holmes or Connor Lammert, which is already a size mismatch in favor of Texas. Add in OU’s preference for switching on ball screens, and Texas has a great opportunity to get Lammert and Holmes quite a few points as they crash to the hoop against smaller guards.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 4:26PM

Oklahoma Sooners (18-8 overall, 9-5 Big 12) at Texas Longhorns (12-15, 4-10)
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.

Romero Osby dominated Texas in the first meeting
(Photo credit: Nate Billings/The Oklahoman)

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.

Since then…

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.

Steven Pledger has been on fire in the last three games
(Photo credit: Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)

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.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 10:54AM

Texas Longhorns (8-9 overall, 0-4 Big 12) at Oklahoma Sooners (12-4, 3-1)
Lloyd Noble Center | Norman, OK | Tip: 8:30 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
LRT Consecutive Game #238

It has been 15 years since the Texas Longhorns opened conference play with four losses, a depth which the program had never reached under Coach Rick Barnes before Saturday’s heartbreaking loss to Kansas. With little time to prepare for tonight’s road game against Oklahoma, the Horns will have to rebound quickly if they want to avoid making even more unfortunate history.

Texas has not opened conference play with five straight losses since Leon Black was at the helm in 1975-76. There were some close calls in between, with both the 1982-83 and 1983-84 squads dropping four before stopping the bleeding in their fifth game. Those reprieves were temporary, however, as the 1983-84 team ended up losing nine of its first 10 Southwest Conference games and the 1982-83 team finished 1-15 in the league.

The Longhorns showed a lot of promise in their upset bid against Kansas on Saturday, so there’s hope that they can avoid that 0-5 start tonight. Texas has now proven it has the talent to compete with anyone in the league, but these young Longhorns have to also prove that they have the moxie to actually close out their opponents.

Oklahoma’s stingy defense pesters opponents
(Photo credit: Charlie Reidel/Associated Press)

By the numbers

Like most Lon Kruger teams, these Sooners play tough defense and value the basketball. Oklahoma is allowing opponents an adjusted efficiency mark of just 0.918 points per possession, while coughing it up on only 18.9% of their own possessions. While that turnover percentage is not nearly as miserly as that of Kruger’s UNLV teams, the Sooners definitely limit their mistakes on the offensive end.

That ability to make possessions count is very important for a team that doesn’t actually shoot the ball very well. OU’s effective field goal percentage is only 47.2%, more than a full point below the national average. That number is dragged down by poor outside shooting, as the Sooners make only 32.2% of their three-point attempts.

The other aspect of Oklahoma’s offense that makes up for their poor shooting is an ability to extend possessions with offensive rebounds. The Sooners are ranked 63rd in the country in OR%, grabbing 35.8% of their missed shots. Add in that solid work on the glass with the low number of turnovers, and OU is currently ranked 60th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, scoring 1.072 points per possession.

As for that tough defense, the Sooners lock down the perimeter and keep their opponents off the line. Oklahoma opponents have made only 30.4% of their three-point attempts this season, one of the fifty best defensive marks on the perimeter. OU also only gives away about three free throw attempts for every ten field goals, a defensive FTR that ranks in the Top 70. Although Texas has not proven it can take advantage at the line, it is unlikely that they will get many attempts at the charity stripe against this Sooner D.

Meet the Sooners

In the second year under Coach Kruger, the Oklahoma roster has quickly come together with a nice blend of youth and experience, giving the Sooners a very deep bench. Oklahoma returns all five starters from last year’s team, but the bench is so deep that three of them are now reserves.

Senior guard Steven Pledger (No. 2) is one of the two returning starters who has held on to his role in the starting five. He has a deadly three-point shot and is mostly a catch-and-shoot guy who does not attack the rim that often. After a scorching 5-for-9 start behind the arc in the season opener against Louisiana-Monroe, Pledger has cooled off a bit, but is still sinking nearly 37% of his threes.

Romero Osby is Oklahoma’s leading scorer
(Photo credit: Charlie Reidel/Associated Press)

The other returning starter who is still in the starting five is forward Romero Osby (No. 24). The former Mississippi State Bulldog is tops on the team in both points and rebounds, scoring 13.6 per game to go with 6.4 boards. Osby is a very tough matchup because he has good handles, can move quickly, and has a nice midrange game. Although Oklahoma likes to isolate him on the block and use cross-screens to free him up for easy hoops, Osby loves to face up defenders near the free throw line and quickly drive to the rack.

Fellow transfer forward Amath M’Baye (No. 22) also presents the same matchup problems. Although M’Baye cannot hit the three like Osby can, he also has a good midrange game and the ability to take other forwards off the bounce. The pair of forwards are also tenacious on the glass, with their individual rebounding percentages ranking in the top 500 nationally on both ends of the court. M’Baye snags more than 10% of his offensive rebounding opportunities, a huge reason why the Sooners are still successful on offense despite poor shooting numbers.

In the backcourt, the Sooners are getting instant production from freshman Buddy Hield (No. 3), an exciting kid from the Bahamas. Although he’s not technically the team’s point guard, Hield leads the starters with two assists per game and rebounds incredibly well for a 6’3″ guard. He knows where the ball is likely to carom off a miss and manages to slip through the defense to steal boards from bigger players.

Although he’s a great facilitator and board man, Hield is truly a scorer at heart. He has a nice outside shot, smooth midrange jumper, and is great at slashing to the rack. That ability to penetrate is key on a team that doesn’t log many assists. Hield’s drives force defenses to help and rotate, which often opens up the bigs underneath or Pledger behind the arc.

At the point, freshman Je’lon Hornbeak (No. 5) is still adjusting to the college game. On a team that doesn’t turn it over often, Hornbeak is the one who makes the miscues that has coaches scratching their heads. He has a great ability to shift speeds and get into the heart of the defense, but his primary problem is that he frequently gets locked into his highest gear. Many of his turnovers are a result of playing too fast and out of control, so once he masters the art of slowing down and taking what the defense gives, his game will quickly elevate.

When Hornbeak is playing off the ball, he is also a threat from outside. The freshman has made nearly 38% of his threes, including a perfect 2-for-2 performance in the team’s win over in-state rival Oklahoma State.

With the freshman and Wyoming transfer M’Baye now in the starting lineup, Sam Grooms (No. 1) now comes off the bench, just a year after starting every single game. Even while dealing with a pair of bad ankles, Grooms is still the team’s best facilitator, which is why he’s averaging more than 21 minutes in conference play. The senior is truly a pass-first point guard, and he leads the team with 41 assists despite coming off the bench.

Junior swingman Cameron Clark (No. 21) is also a demoted starter, and that new role means he doesn’t have to score quite as many points this year. Clark broke out late in his sophomore campaign with 42 points in a three-game February stretch, but is averaging just 6.3 points per game this year. He is typically serving as an undersized four when he’s on the court this season, but he still manages to scrap for offensive rebounds and putbacks. Clark also enjoys a matchup advantage against slower forwards, as he spreads the court with his jump shot and can take those defenders off the bounce.

Senior forward Andrew Fitzgerald (No. 4) is the third displaced starter on Oklahoma’s roster, and his minutes have been cut drastically. After averaging 28 minutes and 12 points per game last year, Fitzgerald has played 16.1 minutes per game this year and is averaging less than six points. Although he’s 6’8″, Fitzgerald loves to hang out on the baseline and pop fifteen-foot jumpers. His affinity for the midrange game also hampers his ability to make a difference on the glass, a big reason why his role has been reduced this season.

Freshman Isaiah Cousins (No. 11) rounds out the core rotation. After starting the first 10 games of the year, Cousins was replaced by Hield in the starting five. The 6’3″ guard from New York has a nice driving game, but his inability to score from outside allows defenses to sag off and take away that penetration.

Keys to the game

1) Force mistakes – While the Sooners generally take good care of the basketball, they have had stretches of sloppy play this season. In the team’s loss to Kansas State on Saturday, the Sooners ended 25.7% of their possessions with a turnover. The Sooners have scored less than one point per possession in just six of their 16 games, and four of those performances came when Oklahoma posted a turnover percentage north of 21%. If the Longhorns want to slow down an efficient OU offense, they will have to force the Sooners to waste some possessions.

Unfortunately, Texas does not typically force many turnovers. Saturday’s game against Kansas showed that they have that ability, though, and it also showed just how quickly the Texas D can fuel a run. If the Longhorns can put some pressure on Hornbeak and force miscues, they can hopefully get a few easy buckets in transition and avoid having to face a stout Oklahoma defense in the halfcourt.

Texas needs Julien Lewis to knock down his open looks
(Photo credit: Rodolfo Gonzalez/Associated Press)

2) Clean up the defensive glass – Oklahoma is not a good shooting team, but they do a great job getting to their misses and scoring second-chance points. Texas started well on the defensive glass against Baylor, West Virginia, and Kansas, but gave up key boards in the final minutes of all of those close losses. The Longhorns have to close out possessions with defensive rebounds for the whole 40 minutes if they want to get a road win at Lloyd Noble tonight.

3) Get the shooters going – The Sooners had major issues keeping up with Will Spradling and Rodney McGruder in Manhattan on Saturday. Although there’s not nearly as much motion in the Texas offense as there is in K-State’s, the Longhorns still work hard setting screens for Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis. Those two are going to get their share of open looks as the Sooner defense tries switching on screens, so they have to be ready to shoot and need to knock down their looks from the opening whistle.

4) Control tempo – Oklahoma is not a team that is going to get out and run, but the Longhorns still need to make sure that this game is played at their pace. The Sooners have a much deeper roster, an advantage that is going to be even more important with these two teams playing on only about 48 hours of rest. If the game does happen to speed up, tired legs could cost Texas in the final minutes. For a team that is already struggling to close out games, that will only make things tougher.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 5:35PM

Oklahoma Sooners (14-14 overall, 4-12 Big 12) at Texas Longhorns (18-11, 8-8)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 8 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN2
LRT Consecutive Game #216

The NCAA hopes of the Texas Longhorns survived an incredibly close call in Lubbock on Saturday afternoon, as Rick Barnes and Co. escaped the High Plains with a 71-67 overtime victory over Texas Tech. The Longhorns coughed up an 11-point halftime lead and even found themselves down by as many as six in overtime, yet managed to avoid a crippling loss that would have practically guaranteed Texas would miss the NCAA tournament.

Instead, the Longhorns find themselves still in the “Last Four In” of Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology update, with all four of those teams in action tonight. While Texas can’t make a huge statement with a win over Oklahoma tonight, a victory is necessary to keep hopes alive.

Northwestern and South Florida both have chances to knock off opponents in the RPI’s Top 25, as they host Ohio State and travel to Louisville, respectively. A win by either of those teams will easily push them past Texas in the pecking order, but that is much easier said than done. If the Wildcats and Bulls can’t notch signature wins, the Longhorns have an opportunity to create a little cushion in the S-curve with a victory tonight.

Meet the Sooners

For an in-depth look at the Oklahoma roster and the team’s key stats, check out LRT’s game preview from the first meeting between these two teams.

The first meeting

For a post-game from the first Texas/OU match-up this season, read LRT’s recap of the Texas victory in Norman.

Since then…

With Texas and Oklahoma not squaring off until mid-February, the teams had to wait just 15 days to face each other once again. The Sooners posted a 1-2 mark since last facing the Longhorns, with their only victory coming at home against Oklahoma State. In that game, Oklahoma logged a 45.5% success rate from behind the arc, led by Steven Pledger’s hot hand. The junior guard was 3-for-4 from long range and was tops on the team with 17 points.

Tyler Neal also found success from three-point range in that game, knocking down two of his four attempts. The sophomore made some clutch threes against Texas, and that performance jump-started his recent resurgence. After averaging just a shade over eight minutes per game in OU’s first 14 Big 12 contests, Neal logged 17 minutes against the Longhorns. In the three games since then, he’s averaged more than 18, and has become a key contributor off the bench. As the Longhorns learned in Norman, Neal cannot be given too much space to shoot.

The Texas game also proved to be a launching pad for fellow sophomore Cameron Clark. After a freshman season in which he showed flashes of brilliance, Clark had yet to make a big splash against quality opponents this season. He finally dazzled against the Horns, however, putting in 13 points in a 38-minute performance. He’s hardly left the floor since facing Texas, averaging 14 points and nearly 34 minutes in those three contests.

Keys to the game

1) Start quickly – The Longhorns struggled early against the Oklahoma zone in Norman, although it certainly wasn’t the fault of point guard Myck Kabongo. He consistently found creases in the defense and set up his teammates, but the Horns were ice cold from the floor. If Texas can hit those open looks tonight and get the reactionary Erwin Center crowd into it right away, this one could have a very different feel from the first game.

2) Limit second-chance points – The Sooners are one of the nation’s best when it comes to reclaiming missed shots, snagging more than 36% of their offensive board chances. Texas kept Oklahoma right at their season average, allowing the Sooners to reclaim 36.1% of their missed shots. Even more importantly, Oklahoma was only able to turn those offensive boards into eight extra points. If Texas can hold OU to a similar number tonight, a season sweep should be in the cards.

3) Lock down the perimeter – Oklahoma only made 33% of their threes in the first game, but have a pair of quality outside shooters in Pledger and the suddenly-important Neal. As any fan of college basketball knows, the triple is the great equalizer, so Texas needs to keep those two Sooners from getting hot beyond the arc. Oklahoma lacks any other real sharpshooters, so chasing Pledger and Neal off the perimeter will greatly diminish the chances of an upset tonight.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:02AM

Texas Longhorns 69, Oklahoma Sooners 58

For the 12th time this season, the Longhorns headed to the locker room on Tuesday night trailing their opponents. Texas had allowed the Oklahoma Sooners to build an eight-point lead late in the first before Sheldon McClellan finished out the half with a clutch three-point play to close the gap to five at the break. Unfortunately for the Sooners, there was still another half to be played.

The Texas defense clamped down in the second half
(Photo credit: Sarah Phipps/Associated Press)

The Longhorns continued their trend of strong second-half basketball, roaring out of the locker room with a seven-point burst that put them on top and set the tone for the final twenty minutes. Texas shot over 45% from the field in the second half after making just a third of their attempts in the first, and they forced 10 Oklahoma turnovers after the break. The Longhorns outscored the Sooners by 16 in the second frame, cruising to an 11-point win.

What looked good

Julien Lewis took over for the first few minutes of the second half, scoring on a fast break layup to open the scoring. On the next possession, he forced one of those 10 turnovers and turned his steal into a fast break bucket. Just two minutes later, Lewis added an offensive board on an outstanding hustle play, which led to a wide open three for Myck Kabongo that put the Horns on top by one.

J’Covan Brown kept the rally going for Texas, bouncing back from a tough and inefficient first half. After going 2-for-8 in the first half, Brown sank three of his six shots in the second, with all three makes coming from behind the arc. He also added a pair of steals as Texas turned up the defensive pressure in the second half.

Freshman Sheldon McClellan cracked double figures in scoring for the 16th time this year, chipping in 13 points. Although he missed all three of his attempts from long range, McClellan attacked with the bounce, knocking in some nice floaters amidst traffic. He also earned his way to the stripe with those drives, adding five points on a perfect night at the line. McClellan also snagged five boards, four of those coming on the defensive end. Against a solid offensive rebounding team like Oklahoma, getting that kind of board production from a swingman is huge.

McClellan wasn’t the only Longhorn who manufactured points, as the Longhorns did an excellent job attacking the defense inside and earning trips to the line in the second half. It was the second straight game that Texas scored a ton of points from the charity stripe down the stretch. Against Kansas State and Oklahoma, the Longhorns shot 46 second-half free throws, converting 39 of them. To put it in a tempo-free context, Texas posted a free-throw rate of 121%, meaning that the Horns actually shot 21% more free throws than field goals in their last two second halves.

Kabongo was a big part of that success at the line, as the freshman guard made all six of his free throw attempts. He finished with 13 points and seven assists — one on a highlight-reel alley-oop to Jaylen Bond — but easily could have had a double-double if his teammates converted the looks he was setting up for them. In the first half, Myck was the most successful player against the Oklahoma zone, consistently finding soft spots to penetrate before dishing it down low. Unfortunately, the Longhorns couldn’t make their open looks and started the game just 2-of-7 from the field.

What needed work

Those problems inside were especially tough for big man Clint Chapman, who made just two of nine on the night. While his makes came on a pair of nice midrange jumpers from the baseline, he was completely ineffective from within a few feet of the rim. Clint has played really well over the last few weeks, so fans have to hope that this was just one bad game and he will revert to that high level of play. On a Longhorn team that relies on quick, driving guards, the frontcourt has to be able to convert those easy looks inside.

The only other major concern for the Longhorns was a bit of lazy play against Oklahoma’s 3-2 zone in the first half. Although Kabongo was consistently attacking and the Horns were getting some quality looks from long range, there were still quite a few possessions where Texas settled for long, challenged jumpers. A team will never run every possession to perfection, but on a night where even the open looks weren’t going down, it made the wasted possessions stick out even more.

The Longhorns will be facing another zone on Monday night when they take on Baylor, so they need to remain disciplined and do the right things on offense. The Bear zone is particularly weak in the short corner, so quality team offense can result in a ton of easy buckets if Texas makes the smart plays.

The big picture

The fact that the Longhorns shot that poorly from the floor and still pulled out a win on the road is very reassuring. While Oklahoma isn’t a team bound for the NCAAs, they are still much more talented than their 3-10 conference record indicates. Finding a way to win on an off night is the sign of a quality team, and overcoming that kind of adversity has been a challenge for Texas this season.

Although this four-game winning streak includes wins over the bottom three teams in the league standings, it is still very encouraging. Two of those wins came on the road, while the comeback win against Kansas State at home was truly remarkable. The Texas schedule is easier than those of some other bubble teams right now, and the Horns are simply taking care of business. Although many of these wins won’t beef up the résumé, by simply continuing to win, the Horns are moving themselves up the S-curve. With just three victories needed for the magical 20-win mark, a W at Oklahoma State on Saturday would make that milestone a near certainty.

Up next: at Oklahoma State (12-13 overall, 5-7 Big 12); Saturday, 3 P.M. CT

Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:04AM

Texas Longhorns (16-9 overall, 6-6 Big 12) at Oklahoma Sooners (13-11, 3-9)
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.

Romero Osby and Oklahoma have exceeded expectations
(Photo credit: Alonzo Adams/Associated Press)

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.

Steven Pledger couldn’t find much space against Tech
(Photo credit: Zach Long/Associated Press)

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.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:53AM

[2] Texas Longhorns 74, [10] Oklahoma Sooners 54

The Texas Longhorns badly needed a shot in the arm. After storming through conference play with an 11-0 mark and a efficiency differential of greater than 0.20 points per possession, Texas looked nearly unstoppable. But in their final five games of the season, the Longhorn offense stalled out at the exact time that their impenetrable defense began to lose its luster.

After holding 10 of their first 11 conference opponents to less than 0.80 points per possession, the Longhorn defense turned into a sieve during the final three weeks of the season. In losses to Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas State, Texas allowed an average of 1.174 points per defensive possession.

The Sooners couldn’t find space against the Texas D
(Photo credit: Shane Keyser/Kansas City Star)

It was a stroke of luck, then, that the Longhorns and Sooners were matched up in last night’s quarterfinal. In the first two meetings between the teams, Texas held Oklahoma to just .797 points per possession and an effective field goal percentage of only 38.3%, while winning by an average of 12.5 points.

It was more of the same last night, as Texas built upon their strong defensive showing in the regular-season finale against Baylor. The Longhorn defense held Oklahoma to just six points in the first 10-plus minutes of the game, and jumped out to another early lead that they would never relinquish. Texas put it on auto-pilot at halftime, coasting to a 74-54 win, their third victory of the season over the Sooners.

A night after the Oklahoma offense had run roughshod over Baylor, Texas completely shut down the Sooner attack. Oklahoma shot 50% from behind the arc against Baylor in the first round game, but were just 0-5 from long range in the first half against Texas. While OU did manage to knock down half of their two-point attempts in the first half, their inability to reclaim any of the misses doomed them to failure.

Texas held the Sooners to just three offensive rebounds in the entire game, with two of them coming in the final 62 seconds. The absolute clinic on the glass gave the Longhorns a defensive rebounding percentage of 89.5%, their best mark of the season by far. The only game that saw Texas come anywhere close to that level of dominance was the season opener against Navy, in which the Horns grabbed 84.3% of the Midshipmen’s misses.

On offense, the Longhorns looked more crisp than they had in weeks. J’Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton drove baseline from the wings time and again, resulting in layups and wide-open interior passes for the bigs. Brown had a season-high five assists, while Hamilton added a pair of his own. The unselfish play was a team-wide attitude, as Texas logged 18 assists on 29 baskets.

Jai Lucas had his best game of the season
(Photo credit: Shane Keyser/Kansas City Star)

The biggest surprise of the day came from Jai Lucas, who gave 20 minutes off the bench and gave the Longhorns an early spark with his eight points. Lucas had a very tough outing against Oklahoma in the home game on January 15th, playing just six minutes thanks to poor defense against OU’s Carl Blair. In this one, he kept the speedy guard in front of him, knocked down both of his three-point attempts, and logged three assists.

While Lucas is not going to be playing that many minutes against better opponents, the key takeaway from this one is that it appears his confidence has improved dramatically. In the last three games, Lucas shot 57% from the field, 3-of-4 behind the arc, and logged four steals. In the first 29 games of the year, he was 33.6% from the field, 20.5% from three-point range, and had three total steals.

Where Lucas was once just a spot-up shooter, he now has the confidence to drive for pull-up jumpers, and he finally seems capable on the defensive end. If Texas can just get at least 10 minutes of quality bench play from Lucas in tournament games, the team’s depth issues become less of a factor.

Inside, Tristan Thompson abused the Sooner frontcourt. He posted his eighth double-double of the season, grabbing 11 rebounds to go with his 13 points. In his last five games, Thompson is averaging 18.2 points, 11.2 boards, and 2.4 blocks per game. Without a doubt, the freshman has chosen the best time of the year to become an unstoppable force.

The most reassuring thing about the victory was the resurgence of sophomore star Jordan Hamilton. After shooting just 31.4% from the field over the team’s final five regular season games, Hamilton played a fantastic game against the Sooners. He was 9-of-18 from the field, with three of those misses coming on one particularly physical sequence inside. Hamilton seemed more willing to attack inside, wasn’t primarily focused on shooting, and used his teammates screens to come open for mid-range jumpers. If this is the Hamilton that shows up against better teams — instead of the one that dribbled the air out of the ball in recent weeks — Texas is once again a scary team.

Next up: vs. Texas A&M (24-7); Friday, 8:30 P.M. CT

Posted by Ryan Clark at 10:50AM

[10] Oklahoma Sooners (14-17) vs. [2] Texas Longhorns (25-6)
Sprint Center | Kansas City, MO | Tip: 6 P.M. CT
TV: Big 12 Network (Affiliate list)/ESPN Full Court/ESPN3.com

The last three weeks have been dicey for the Texas Longhorns. Considered the trendy pick for National Champion by many pundits back in early February, the Longhorns struggled through three losses in their last five regular season games. Even in a road win over Baylor in the season finale, the Texas offense was painful to watch.

Cade Davis really hates the text to the left
(Photo credit: Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star)

But now, the real season begins. Sure, college basketball’s November-to-March regular season is much more exciting than practically every other sport. But once Championship Week tips off, the rules are the same for everyone. From the one-time title favorites to the NJITs of the world, all you have to do is win. Win and advance.

Fortunately for Texas, the Big 12 Tournament isn’t a must-win. They are safely in the NCAA’s field of 68, and are likely locked into a 2-seed. A loss today could make things interesting, and perhaps slide them down the S-curve into the 3-seed range. But even if the Longhorns reel off a three-game streak to claim the tournament title, there are other teams that would likely shut them out of a 1-seed. What is at stake for Texas is a chance to reclaim momentum and to rediscover the things that made their offense so scary in January and early February.

They will get their first chance to do that against the Oklahoma Sooners this evening. Texas knocked off the Sooners in both games this year, and have won 10 out of the last 12 games against their Red River rivals. An old college hoops cliché holds that it’s tough to beat the same team three times in one season. Teams learn tendencies and have more chances to adjust, making each rematch a little tougher for the victor to defend their crown.

Of course, if you’re a Texas fan that puts stock into historical numbers, you can shrug that off with smug satisfaction. In 2008, the last time Texas and Oklahoma met three times on the hardwood, the Longhorns swept the series and went on to the Elite Eight.

Meet the Sooners

For a full look at the Oklahoma roster, please read the preview of the first game between the two teams.

The first meeting

The Longhorns knocked off the Sooners 66-46 in Austin on January 15th, a game in which Texas led wire to wire. The Horns jumped out to an early lead by holding OU to just three field goals in their first 13 attempts, and allowed the Sooners just 19 points in the first half.

On the offensive end, the Longhorns were given numerous open looks from long range, and they were able to knock down seven of 12 from behind the arc on the afternoon. Jordan Hamilton was the biggest beneficiary of the poor perimeter D, and he knocked down five threes as part of his 17-point performance.

For the Sooners, Andrew Fitzgerald was the lone bright spot in an embarrassing loss. The big man had 18 points, scoring at will inside. Tiny guard Carl Blair also had a pair of easy layups when defended by Texas’ Jai Lucas, who couldn’t match Blair’s speed. Unfortunately for Blair, Lucas only played six minutes in the game.

All told, the 0.747 points per possession that Texas allowed was OU’s worst offensive performance of the year. The Sooners were just 1-of-15 from long range, leading to an effective field-goal percentage of just 40.2%, their lowest mark at that point of the season.

Jeff Capel is 2-9 against the Longhorns
(Photo credit: Shane Keyser/Kansas City Star)

The second meeting

Texas’ excellent field goal defense would actually get even better when the two teams squared off again on February 9th. The Longhorns limited the Sooners to an eFG of only 36.6% on that night in Norman, as Oklahoma actually shot better beyond the arc (38.5%) than inside it (30.2%).

The Texas defense set the tone early, holding Oklahoma to just four buckets on their first 17 attempts. Like the first meeting, the Longhorns never trailed, and this time they actually built a massive 15-point advantage in the first ten minutes.

Offensively, the Longhorns had a well-balanced attack in which all five starters scored at least 11 points. Dogus Balbay opened the scoring by constantly attacking the rim, and the Sooners seemed disinterested in stopping the Turkish guard in transition. He finished with 12 points and four rebounds, and even knocked down a mid-range jumper.

The rest of the Longhorns simply toyed with the Sooners for most of the first half. Excellent ball movement and great interior passing led to numerous easy layups and dunks, with Gary Johnson logging four assists to go with his 14 points.

Since then…

The home loss to Texas was only the beginning of the slide for the Sooners. They dropped their next six, suffering through a seemingly interminable eight-game losing streak. Last year, Oklahoma lost their last eight regular season games before bowing out in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament. Unlike that team, these Sooners managed to stop the bleeding by defending their home court against Oklahoma State for a narrow three-point win in the season finale.

Last night, the Sooners built upon that OSU game and started an actual winning streak, dominating Baylor — sans Perry Jones III — for an 84-67 victory. Cade Davis led the way for Oklahoma, scoring 24 points in just 30 minutes thanks to 4-of-8 shooting behind the arc.

The Sooners scored an amazing 1.29 points per possession against the Bears, a stat made even more impressive when you consider that Oklahoma was so careless with the ball that they posted a 21.5% turnover rate.

Keys to the game

First and foremost, Texas needs to set the defensive tone early. The Longhorns raced out to early leads in the first two games with Oklahoma, largely on the back of their stingy defense. With the Sooners coming off an incredible shooting night against Baylor, Texas needs to send an early message that today is going to be very different.

Jordan Hamilton has had success against OU this year
(Photo credit: Associated Press)

The Longhorns also need to exploit the rebounding advantage this evening. Texas outrebounded the Sooners in both previous meetings, but they really wreaked havoc by limiting Oklahoma to just one offensive rebound in the first half of the game in Norman. If Texas can keep Andrew Fitzgerald and Cameron Clark from extending Oklahoma’s possessions, they should be able to finish off the sweep.

Finally, we’ll be looking to see if this is the game that gets Jordan Hamilton out of his slump. Although he is averaging 17 points per game over his last six games, those points have come on 31.4% shooting from the field.

Hamilton and the Longhorns need to rediscover the offensive mojo they had at the beginning of the conference season. At that point, the sophomore took most of his outside shots off of curls or coming around solid screens. For the last few weeks, most of his three-point attempts come as he’s dribbling against a defender and decides he has enough space to suddenly pop one.

In the two games against Oklahoma, Hamilton scored 37 points on 46% shooting, including an 8-of-17 mark from behind the arc. If there’s any opponent left in the tournament field that can help Jordan bust out of his slump, Oklahoma would be it.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 12:37PM

#3/3 Texas Longhorns 68, Oklahoma Sooners 52

With snow outside and temperatures in the teens, Oklahoma opened the doors of the Lloyd Noble Center, allowing any and all to enter the building for a game against the hated Texas Longhorns. The laissez-faire admission policy led to an overflow crowd, with 12,000-plus Sooner fans filling the seating bowl and spilling into the upper concourse, clad in their free white “Cheer Like a Champion” t-shirts.

Unfortunately for the Sooner faithful, the Longhorns made sure there was little to cheer for, champion-like or not. Texas once again rolled into a hostile road environment and silenced the crowd, which included Heisman-trophy winner Sam Bradford and “musician” Toby Keith. The Longhorns led from wire-to-wire, cruising to a 68-52 win in front of their own star, NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant.

Dogus Balbay scored six of Texas’ first 10 points
(Photo credit: Associated Press)

What looked good

As it has been all season, the Longhorns relied on their trademark defense to build an early lead that they would never relinquish. Texas held the Sooners to just four field goals on their first 17 attempts, allowing the Horns to race out to a 15-point lead after just 10 minutes of play.

While the Sooners managed to attack the paint early, the Texas bigs created enough havoc to force OU to miss eight shots within just a few feet of the rim. For the ballgame, the Sooners managed to shoot just 30% from inside the arc, well off of their season average of 53%.

With so many missed shots early, the Longhorns were able to exploit their advantage on the boards. Oklahoma managed just one offensive rebound in the first half, and were held to a paltry 23.1% offensive rebounding percentage. In the midst of a tough shooting night, OU was rendered practically useless on the offensive end without the benefit of second opportunities.

On the offensive end, Dogus Balbay set the tone early for Texas, as he continued his recent trend of aggressively attacking the rim. With teams now forced to stop Balbay as he pushes the ball up the floor, Texas has an even more potent secondary break. If the initial defender doesn’t stop the ball, opponents are having to help and rotate before the defense is even fully set. That defensive scrambling leads to wide-open jumpers and three-pointers for the rest of Texas’ starting five, and this new wrinkle in the Longhorn offense is helping the team jump on opponents early.

Balbay even knocked down a mid-range jumper in this one, something that will be a huge boost to the offense if it becomes a more common occurrence. Without the threat of a jumper, defenses can still sag off of Balbay, an issue that made Texas’ inside game incredibly ugly last season. If Dogus can mix in a nice jumper here and there, the Longhorn frontcourt will have even more success inside.

Jordan Hamilton frustrated OU and Coach Jeff Capel
(Photo credit: Associated Press)

With Balbay leading the team in scoring early, it allowed Jordan Hamilton time to warm up on a night where his outside shot wasn’t falling. Hamilton was just 3-of-9 from long range, but adjusted and used the dribble-drive along the baseline. He also capitalized on some great interior passing from Tristan Thompson and Gary Johnson to add a pair of easy layups. By the final buzzer, Hamilton led all scorers with 20 points.

It wasn’t just Hamilton that benefited from extra passes inside. Texas scored 28 points in the paint against the Sooners, thanks in large part to four assists from Johnson, who also added 14 points in a well-rounded performance. The solid post feeds also allowed Thompson to log an efficient 4-of-5 shooting night and an 11-point effort.

What needed work

Writing this section of the game reports has grown a little tougher as the season goes on. With the Longhorns winning 15 of their last 16 games, including nine conference wins by an average of 18.1 points, sometimes it can be hard to find things to nitpick. That being said, there is no such thing as a perfect performance, so pick nits we must.

While the Longhorns dominated the defensive glass, they did have issues giving up easy putbacks. When the Sooners did manage to grab an offensive board, they actually capitalized at a fairly high rate. OU turned nine offensive rebounds into 10 second chance points. Those easy buckets usually came when the Longhorns failed to box out on the weak side, and missed shots fell right into the hands of a Sooner waiting for the tip-in. Against a better rebounding team, allowing 1.11 points per offensive board could be disastrous.

The Longhorns also played a little loose with the basketball, perhaps a result of being in control the entire way. Texas coughed it up 14 times, giving them a turnover rate of 22.6%, a significant jump from their season average of 18 percent. Most of the Longhorn turnovers seemed to be a result of lazy passes or of the intended recipient simply not being awake. Just like the offensive rebounding, this won’t matter against much of Texas’ remaining schedule, but it definitely needs to be drilled down before the Horns face tougher opponents.

The bench was also largely absent in this game, although Matt Hill had some solid defensive possessions against OU big man Andrew Fitzgerald and grabbed five boards. But aside from Hill’s contributions, the bench was practically non-existent. Hill, Jai Lucas, Alexis Wangmene, and J’Covan Brown combined to play just 38 minutes, failed to score a point, and turned it over twice. It’s certainly a positive to have all five starters score at least 11 points, but Texas will need more bench production in future games.

Up next: vs. Baylor (16-7 overall, 6-4 Big 12); Saturday, 3 P.M. CT

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