There's no time for Texas basketball to celebrate Saturday's huge win over Kansas State, as the Longhorns hit the road this week for a two-game swing to play the Oklahomas, beginning with tonight's Valentine's date with the Sooners.
OU is reeling at the moment, having lost four straight -- including the first Big 12 win of the year for Texas Tech -- but while flawed, the Sooners aren't the pushover their 3-9 conference record suggests. Oklahoma has already defeated Kansas State twice, and outside of a pair of massacres in Columbia and Lawrence, the Sooners have been competitive in every game they've played. That's in part a reflection of the school's savvy hire of veteran coach Lon Kruger, who prior to taking over for Jeff Capel in Norman took UNLV to four of the past five NCAA Tournaments, and of course before that was a highly successful college coach at Kansas State, Florida, and Illinois, with an unsuccessful detour into the NBA coaching ranks in between.
The Sooners starting five are a solid group, headlined by star shooting guard Steven Pledger (6-4, 221), who has been ripping nets from beyond the arc at an exceptional 44% clip (62-140), and plays the J'Covan Brown role for Oklahoma. The star guard has a beautiful jump shot that he shoots with a consistent release, and a nifty grab-bag of offensive skills that he puts to use to score in a variety of ways inside the arc. Pledger is joined in the backcourt by point Sam Grooms (6-1, 200) and Cameron Clark (6-6, 197). Grooms is the more dangerous player, comping favorably to a less talented Myck Kabongo -- the junior has some nice ability to penetrate and create for teammates, but coughs up too many turnovers and is highly inconsistent shooting the ball from the outside. Sophomore Cameron Clark is a lanky wing who has really struggled to make an impact, and Oklahoma is really hurting that the well-regarded recruit has thus far failed to develop. Clark is proving to be more athletic than talented, lacks an outside stroke, and has yet to figure out how to finish consistently against collegiate defenses.
Oklahoma's starting frontline is more solid than most realize, featuring a pair of well-built forwards who play stronger than they do long, contributing efficient offense while doing a nice job protecting the paint with physical defense. Juniors Romero Osby (6-8, 237) and Andrew Fitzgerald (6-8, 243) are similar players both in stature and the type of value they provide. Fitzgerald is a more well-rounded offensive player -- more polished with the basketball in his hands, with a more robust series of moves that he uses well both to score and earn trips to the line -- while Osby is more of a brute force offensively, and a stronger rebounder and defender.
Again, Oklahoma's is not a bad starting five, but part of the trouble for the Sooners is the steep drop off after that. Only three players average 10+ minutes for Lon Kruger off the bench, and all of them are pretty substantially limited. Junior Carl Blair (6-2, 206) started at the point last year, and though he's quick and offers strong defense, he can't shoot the ball, he's a turnover machine, and he's a substandard finisher. Junior Tyler Neal (6-7, 224) and senior CJ Washington (6-7, 228) provide the only relief on the interior, but neither is a player that you can run the ball through and both struggle defensively.
Keys to the Game
Oklahoma is a classic example of the type of Big 12 opponent you can feel perfectly comfortable about playing at home, but worries you as a road opponent capable of beating you on a good night. Texas is the deeper, more talented team, but to avoid one of those painful, but all-too-typical Big 12 road defeats, the Longhorns have to make sure they take care of business on the margins. Strong rebounding, sound team/help defense, smart transition defense that identifies shooters (read: Pledger), and attack-minded offense that seeks buckets at the rim or trips to the line.
1. Don't lose Steven Pledger. I'll never forget the pre-game speech one of my old basketball coaches gave our team one night. We were getting ready to play our big rival, who featured one amazing player with in-the-gym range and not much else around him. Emphasizing the need to know where he was at all times, our coach pointed at each of us and said, "I don't care if he runs to the locker room to take a piss. I want you there holding his d*ck."
That's pretty much the mantra tonight with Steven Pledger, who is capable of single-handedly shooting OU to an upset win tonight. The junior has really blossomed this season, using his quick release and deadly accuracy to rain threes from the outside, complemented by capable ability to score off the bounce. I imagine we'll mostly guard him with Julien Lewis and J'Covan Brown, but we need everyone on the court to be aware of where Pledger is and close out on him, whether in the halfcourt or transition. The Sooners don't have enough firepower to win if Pledger isn't scoring 15+ points.
2. Make Steven Pledger defend. Texas Tech picked up their first conference win in part because Steven Pledger couldn't stay on the floor. Limited by foul trouble, Pledger played just 31 minutes and scored 4 points, and the rest of the Sooners couldn't pick up the slack. Pledger is an average defender, and whenever he's guarding Brown or Sheldon McClellan, Texas should attack, make him play defense, and try to draw some fouls.
3. One and done for Oklahoma. Like Texas, the Sooners are well above average at snagging their own misses, and both Fitzgerald and Osby will gobble up weak efforts to keep them off the boards. You have to body them up and be physical, and one of the signs that we're in trouble is if Texas' big men are either struggling to keep them off the glass, or racking up fouls trying to do so.
4. Forward progress for Kabongo and McClellan. Finishing this season strong and reaching its potential for this season has always been about Texas' two most talented freshmen taking a step forward as the calendar turned to February. The consistency isn't there, but both Kabongo and McClellan have variously demonstrated that heightened ability, and if both players show strong we're capable of beating just about anybody. And if even just one of them delivers a good game, we're solid favorites to take care of business against weaker competition. The big worry is a poor game from both, which makes us vulnerable offensively, dependent on J'Covan to carry a huge load in order to avoid the upset.
Prediction: This isn't a gimme, and we're perfectly capable of losing if Oklahoma outplays us on the margins, but I've been impressed with Texas' steady improvement in all of those important facets of the game, which help allow our core strengths to come through. I'm feeling optimistic that our freshman guards can thrive in this match up, our frontcourt is up for playing physical and strong inside, and our depth and conditioning provides a substantial edge down the stretch, if it comes down to it. The young Horns keep building momentum: Texas 69 Oklahoma 60