If there's going to be a turnaround for this Texas team, it has to start tonight at Norman, where the Longhorns (8-9, 0-4) will try to pick up their first conference win of the season against a game Oklahoma squad (12-4, 3-1) that had won five in a row prior to Saturday's 69-60 loss at K-State. The game will be televised on ESPN's Big Monday, with an anticipated tip time of 8:35 pm CT.
After sweeping both meetings last year, Rick Barnes and the Longhorns have won 6 straight over OU and 13 of the last 15 meetings, including the last game of Jeff Capel's tenure as head coach of the Sooners, a 74-54 drilling in the 2011 Big XII Tournament. Capel's exit paved the way for Oklahoma to hire Lon Kruger away from UNLV, where he'd just finished taking the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five seasons. In his debut season in Norman last year, the Sooners showed signs of improvement but still struggled to a 15-16 overall record, just 5-13 in the Big 12.
Oklahoma Sooners Personnel
With all five starters returning, joined by a pair of Top 100 freshmen shooting guards and Wyoming transfer Amath M'Baye down low, expectations were elevated for the Sooners heading into this year and thus far they have largely delivered, performing solidly across their non-con season and winning their first three Big 12 games at West Virginia and at home versus Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
The most important of those returning starters is senior guard Steven Pledger (6-4, 219), the lethal sharpshooter who was sixth in the Big 12 in scoring last year at 16 points per game and connected on 42% of his three point shots. Although not elite when forced to be a playmaker on his own, if you lose track of him and he receives the ball in a position to score, Pledger is as dangerous a scorer as there is in the conference. His favorite shot is the deep ball, with 37% of his field goal attempts coming from behind the arc, where 91% of his makes have come off assists. (Compare that to Baylor's Pierre Jackson, who has only been assisted on 44% of his threes.)
Although junior Cam Clark and senior Sam Grooms are both back for the Sooners, Lon Kruger has replaced both of last year's starters on the perimeter with a pair of freshmen. Buddy Hield (6-3, 199), a native of Freeport, Bahamas, was inserted into the starting line up 6 games ago for fellow freshman Isaiah Cousins, who was struggling badly. Hield is a fearless player and an aggressive, disruptive defender who does a great job turning defense into offense. Je'lon Hornbeak (6-3, 180) is doing his best to run the show for OU, but he was a shooting guard in high school and the transition has been difficult for him. He's got good handles and the ability to penetrate (and get to the line), but is very raw overall and prone to turnovers when he does too much.
OU's lack of a true point guard in the starting line up can be attributed to Kruger's (perfectly sensible) aversion to senior Sam Grooms (6-1, 203), who has been the worst point guard in the Big 12 (and possibly the entire country) since his arrival in Norman. Reduced to a reserve role (although still averaging 16 minutes a game), Grooms has been... well, exactly like he was as a starter: a reasonably capable playmaker who turns the ball over an ungodly amount and cannot shoot the ball for the life of him. Also relegated to bench duties is Cameron Clark (6-6, 208) who after two hugely disappointing seasons for the highly touted prospect has been better this year coming off the bench, improving his shot selection and taking advantage of his length and athleticism to try to score more at the rim (46% of his attempts, up from 25% a year ago).
Turning to the frontcourt, the Sooners rely heavily on three upperclassmen forwards. The best of the bunch is the strong and skilled Romero Osby (6-8, 232), a beast on the blocks who does it all: rebound, score, get to the line (where he actually makes his free throws), and block shots. He's quicker than he looks like he should be and has great touch around the rim, and along with Pledger represents the critical match up in this game for Texas' young forwards. Joining Osby in the starting line up is Amath M'Baye (6-9, 208), a long and lean transfer from Wyoming who after sitting out last year is doing a nice job cleaning up misses on the weakside glass and is a disruptive presence in the lane on defense.
Coming in off the bench this year is Andrew Fitzgerald (6-8, 238), whose offensive development stalled after his freshman year while his defense has steadily improved. He's athletic and can run the floor in transition, but isn't presenting much of a threat in the halfcourt, where he used to put his agility to good use in drawing fouls down low. Rounding out the frontcourt is junior Tyler Neal (6-7, 22), who remains more athlete than basketball player and doesn't offer much in his limited action (8 minutes per game).
Keys to the Game & Prediction
As I said at the top, if there's going to be a regular season turnaround for this Texas team that gets them back into NCAA Tournament contention, it probably has to start tonight in Norman. This looks like a more winnable road game than the visit to Ames did, if only because the Sooners aren't a great offensive team and have a tendency to go as Steven Pledger goes. Texas won in Norman last year by forcing turnovers (21-5 edge in points off turnovers) and killing OU in the free throw department, where they enjoyed a very Kansas-esque 29-8 advantage in attempts from the charity stripe (and made 24 of those 29).
The key to defending Pledger isn't to shut him down entirely but to make him take challenging shots off the dribble. He's going to score, but where he can really bury you is when you do a poor job of tracking him and he's able to squirm free to launch catch-and-shoot missiles from beyond the arc. That's a recipe for certain death and the onus is on McClellan, Lewis, and Holland to do as good a job tracking him as they did last year.
The Sooners have found success this year in much the way Rick Barnes' teams typically do: with excellent work on the offensive glass and by limiting turnovers. It's imperative that Texas do a good job clearing misses and defending without sending the Sooners to the line 30 times, and if they can succeed in both those departments and come out ahead in the turnover department, they are capable of picking up a desperately needed win tonight.
Keys to the Game
1. Make Pledger earn his points.
2. No easy second chance points for Osby and M'Baye.
3. Win the battle of turnovers and free throws.
4. Finish a f*cking game.
There have been lots of encouraging signs over the last month, but not very many wins to show for it -- and no wins to show for it in the Big 12. When a team this young falls just short as many times as this group has, there's real concern that at some point the message from their coach becomes dispiriting instead of motivating. Thus far, they've continued to battle hard, improve, and compete for wins, but there's only so many losses a team can take before you start to believe you're going to lose, which guarantees that you will.
The hope is that they're young and eager enough to keep working hard and believing a turnaround is just around the corner, and in this case the short break between games might serve them well by quickly giving them another opportunity to pick up the win they let away on Saturday. So I'm not going to quit on the team before they quit on themselves... Texas gets in the win column tonight and makes it seven straight in the rivalry. Texas 63 Oklahoma 61