NORMAN — As wins go, Oklahoma’s 86-73 victory over Kansas State on Saturday should’ve been one to enjoy. It secured a 20-win season for the second straight year and guaranteed no worse than a .500 record in Big 12 Conference play.
But that wasn’t the case. What’s next took precedent of what had just happened early Saturday evening.
The Sooners (20-7, 9-5 Big 12) face No. 8 at Kansas (21-6, 12-2) at 8 p.m. today at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan. The quick turnaround for the ESPN “Big Monday” game took precedent.
“Kansas, I think, clearly, is one of the best teams in the country. Allen Fieldhouse is a great place to play and a great atmosphere,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “Our guys have a ton of respect for Kansas, but athletes look forward to those types of challenges. We will have a good practice tomorrow and be excited to go up there and take on Kansas.”
The stakes are straightforward: the Jayhawks secure at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title with a win. They are three games clear of the Sooners, Iowa State and Texas with four games remaining in the conference slate.
For OU, tonight’s game is the classic situation where it has much more to gain than lose. OU is in great shape for the NCAA tournament. If the bracket were released today, most have OU projected as a No. 6 seed. A win at Kansas — where it hasn’t won since 1993 — would elevate that seed.
To have any chance of winning, the Sooners can’t be the same team that lost to Kansas, 90-83, at Lloyd Noble Center on Jan. 8.
That game turned on two critical statistics: OU didn’t come close to effectively guarding the Jayhawks. They shot 54.7 percent. They also dominated the glass, outrebounding the Sooners 36 to 23.
Keeping that game within seven strictly came down to OU’s offensive prowess and little else.
The Sooners believe they’ve become a better team since the last meeting. Saturday’s win over Kansas State was their seventh in the last 10 games. They’re still in solid position to finish second in what’s considered college basketball’s best conference because they’ve made adjustments.
Cameron Clark, who matched a career-high with 32 points in the previous meeting against Kansas, ripped down eight rebounds Saturday against the Wildcats. It was his second straight game with at least eight. OU finished the day with a 32-to-28 rebounding edge in a game where Ryan Spangler, the Big 12’s best rebounder, pulled down just two. The Sooners no longer rely on Spangler to handle all of the rebounding duties.
OU has become a better defensive team since it last played Kansas. It allowed Kansas State to shoot 50 percent from the field Saturday. But OU took its foot off the gas with about 10 minutes left in that game.
“That’s what we’re going to have to do,” Clark said. “Whether we like it or not, that’s what we’re going to have to do to win games. Coach (Lon Kruger) has been preaching that.”
Winning at Kansas is going to require a near perfect performance. The Jayhawks are 7-0 at Allen Fieldhouse in Big 12 play this season. Their showdown with the 19th-ranked Longhorns Saturday quickly turned ugly, finishing in a 85-54 Kansas win — its fourth consecutive home win by double digits.
Nonetheless, the Sooners are embracing one of their biggest opportunities of the season. A loss would hurt, but it’s minute compared to what a win could do for OU going into the postseason.
“I think it should be fun up there,” OU guard Buddy Hield said.
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