NORMAN — Playing what amounts to a must-win game in February’s second week isn’t ideal. Playing it against a team that has the same feeling only makes the situation worse.
However, if there’s an odd aroma floating around Lloyd Noble Center at 3 p.m., today, that will probably be desperation emitting from both Oklahoma (14-7, 5-4 Big 12) and No. 5 Kansas (19-3, 7-2).
The Sooners’ urgency comes from back-to-back losses to Kansas State and Iowa State. Those setbacks caused them to plummet from second in the Big 12 standings to a tie for fifth. The momentum they had after winning at Baylor on Jan. 30 would seem distant with a third straight loss.
OU coach Lon Kruger admitted play has slumped since February started. It appeared to hit rock bottom with the 83-64 loss at Iowa on Monday.
Having some extra time to prepare for Kansas hasn’t hurt.
“We needed the practice to improve in a whole lot of areas,” he said.
There was no doubt OU was going to hit some bumps in the road. The stunning aspect of today’s game is that the Jayhawks need the victory to avoid a three-game losing streak.
Their loss to Oklahoma State in Allen Fieldhouse was the surprise of the first half of the Big 12 Conference season — at least until TCU, which hadn’t won a league game, stunned the Jayhawks, 62-55, Wednesday night in Fort Worth, Texas.
Kansas coach Bill Self didn’t mince words after the upset loss.
“It was the worst Kansas team that’s been on the floor since Dr. [James] Naismith was losing to a YMCA team,” he said. “The first half was bad, and it got worse from there.”
Kruger isn’t buying the notion that the worst Kansas team in a century will be at Lloyd Noble Center today.
“I don’t think that will work on many people,” he said. “Kansas is very good. Obviously, they didn’t play like they wanted to against TCU, but we expect the normal Kansas team to come in here on Saturday and play well.”
The only guarantee is that one of these teams will feel better about themselves tonight. Even with its recent struggles, OU knows a victory over Kansas would be monumental for a program that hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 2009 or beaten the Jayhawks, who are still atop the conference standings, since 2005.
This is the game OU has to win to get back to that level.
“Every game feels like a must-win,” OU forward Romero Osby said. “We’ve lost two games, they’ve lost two games. They’re gonna come in here fired up. They’re still the No. 5 team in the country until something changes. They’re a really good team. We’re gonna have to fight from the beginning because it is a must-win.”
The Sooners’ first meeting with the Jayhawks resulted in 67-54 loss at Allen Fieldhouse. The game wasn’t one of OU’s best performances of the season, but they rebounded with the victory over Baylor.
At some point, the inconsistency has to end. OU knows competing in the Big 12 requires a dependable level of play.
“We don’t want to be a team where everyone in the Big 12 is thinking one night we’ll play hard and the next night we’re thinking we’re all that and aren’t ready,” OU guard Buddy Hield said. “We have to be ready for any challenge.”
OU has known since the schedule came out that today’s game would be a big one. It’s wounded after two straight losses and Kansas is in the same boat.
One team will sink and the other will swim.
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