By John Shinn
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — The mention of the word brought an array of expressions to the faces of Oklahoma’s Romero Osby, Steven Pledger and Cameron Clark. The trait they all shared were memories they’d like to forget, but cannot.
The word that caused all three to wince, sigh or roll their eyes was February. Most associate the month with Super Bowl parties and Valentine’s Day dinners.
The Sooners, however, have experienced few delightful moments in the month since 2010. Last season, they went 1-8 in February games, dropping the program’s record to 3-21 in February games since 2010.
That was why Pledger winced like he took a jab to the stomach when the subject came up.
“It’s been tough; it’s been like that every February since I’ve been here,” he said.
Imagine spending an entire year preparing for a season and then seeing it ruined at the same point annually.
February does that to many college basketball teams. The month isn’t the biggest of the season. March holds that distinction because of the NCAA Tournament. Jolts of energy shoot through practice gyms around the country when the calendar flips March. Just the hope of being part of March Madness brings excitement.
The month preceding the NCAA Tournament is the toughest for all involved for multiple reasons.
OU (14-5, 5-2 Big 12) faces No. 18 Kansas State (16-4, 5-2) at 5 p.m. today at Lloyd Noble Center. It’s the first of eight games the Sooners will play this month. Seven, including today’s, will be against opponents they’ve already faced.
“In the latter half of conference play, people are more familiar with each other and there aren’t many surprises,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “It’s matter of players lining up and making plays, and finishing plays.”
The free-flowing games of November, December and even January tend to be replaced by slugfests because teams know opponents’ tendencies backward and forward. The cut through the lane that was once easy now includes an elbow in the chest. Those top scorers who thrived in January now run into defenses designed to stop them. The second, third, fourth and even fifth scoring options have to produce.
“It really becomes about who is the toughest, who is the most physical and who is gonna compete and have the heart to win the game,” Osby said.
The Sooners fell short in all three categories the last three seasons. However, the differences between the three predecessors and the team that will take the court today are multiple.
Toughness is required to win close games. OU improved to 7-2 in games decided by seven points or less with Wednesday’s victory at Baylor.
The physical play has risen because OU has a deeper bench than any of those three previous teams. Starters aren’t gasping for breath in the final 10 minutes because they still have some energy left in the tank. They also have experienced depth with three of OU’s four players coming off the bench — forward Andrew Fitzgerald, forward Cameron Clark and guard Sam Grooms — all have experienced the rigors of at least one Big 12 season.
The heart … well, that has been repeatedly crushed in February. The Sooners are about to find out if theirs has healed.
Winning is what keeps the blood pumping at this time of year. The Sooners had a six-game February losing streak in 2010, a seven-game losing streak in 2011 and dropped six in a row in 2012. By March, each season was sunk and nothing was salvageable.
“Winning is the energy boost and we’re trying to keep that on track and get all the energy we can,” Clark said.
Kansas State is the first opponent in the stretch that will ultimately define OU’s season. If it really wants to get back on the national stage, the time has arrived to prove it.
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