#3 Oklahoma Sooners (22-5, 10-5) at #25 Texas Longhorns (18-10, 9-6)
Saturday, February 26, 2016 @ 1:00 pm CT | Television: CBS
Saturday, February 26, 2016 @ 1:00 pm CT | Television: CBS
It's been a while since Texas-OU on the hardwood was a contest to get fired up about, beyond the boilerplate desire to best a hated rival.1 That drought is officially over, however, and if you're a more casual hoops fan who waits to invest in the team, now's the time. Not since Hollis Price and TJ Ford dazzled us with epic battles of greatness have these two rivals both sported dangerous, ranked squads with high ceilings.
Both Texas and OU have enjoyed exciting, successful seasons led by dynamic veterans in the backcourt, and as the regular season nears completion both teams are hungrily eyeing the post-season with elevated expectations. The match up between the teams is competitive, there are compelling stars on both squads, and though both teams are locks for the NCAA Tournament the stakes are nonetheless substantial. Anyone who considers themselves a fan of Texas basketball can and should be fired up for this one.
1 If you don't believe that Texas fans will celebrate any victory over OU, pick one at random and inform them that UT's junior varsity synchronized swimming team just bested its Sooner counterpart in a pre-season practice scrimmage, then observe how the UT fan reacts. The first thing you'll see is their fist pump reflexively, followed by a look of delight flashing across the eyes as they imagine a disorganized cluster of crimson-clad co-eds splashing about in a pitiful effort to maneuver in unison, while thick rivers of mascara flow down their cheeks like charcoal rivers of tears. Delicious Sooner tears.
What's at stake?
With Monday night's win at Kansas State, the Longhorns eliminated any remaining doubt that Shaka Smart's first season in Austin would include an NCAA Tournament appearance. Even if the Horns were to strike out and lose each of their final three versus OU, Kansas, and at Oklahoma State, they'd still finish with a 9-9 record in the toughest conference in the country. There won't be any "in or out" drama on Selection Sunday: the Horns are in, as will be every other Big 12 team that finishes at .500 or better in conference play.
That is not to say, of course, that the remaining games on the schedule are meaningless. Texas may be able to afford the losses and still make the Tourney, but count on Shaka to have this team hungry and shopping for upgrades. A sweep of the final three regular season games may be unlikely -- going by KenPom's win probabilitiea ($), we have about a 10% chance of winning all three -- but the reward potential (favorable positioning in the Big 12 Tournament and a protected seed in the NCAAs) makes it very much a worthy goal.
A quick glance at the current consensus seeding matrix confirms the Horns' projection comfortably in the field as a 6 seed, but part of what makes the closing stretch particularly interesting and important for this Texas team is the fact that they could plausibly slip all the way to the 9 or 10 line or rocket up the S-curve all the way to the 3 or 4 line. That's a wide spread of potential seedings -- the difference between getting paired in the First Round with Cal (KenPom #24) or Summit League champ IPFW (KenPom #129).
All of which is to say: there are reasons to lust for a win over Oklahoma on Saturday beyond the prize of seeing Sooner suffering.
As invariably rewarding as it is to see OU fail, in truth I prefer it when we battle an OU team that is thriving -- not, of course, because I want the Land Thieves to sustain that success, but because of the ways that it amplifies the competitive atmosphere. When both Texas and OU sport strong squads, the stakes of the rivalry games are that much higher. The victory feels grander; the rewards richer. In many ways, it is sport at its best: battle between two powerful forces challenging to wear the same crown. Conquering your chief rival and challenger to the throne is deeply satisfying, as is watching your rival fail -- and of course, the higher your foe was flying, the farther they have to fall.
Suffice to say, Oklahoma has been soaring high this season, including a brief appearance atop the polls as the nation's #1 ranked team. A short skid in January saw the Sooners lose three out of four, bumping them down from their #1 ranking, but since then they've rallied for a pair of impressive wins, knocking off West Virginia on the road by 14 and then pasting Oklahoma State by 22 in Norman. Having righted the ship, Lon Kreuger's squad heads to Austin projected as a consensus #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, while their 10-5 conference record would award them the #2 seed in the Big 12 Tournament.
With a dangerous and streaky Baylor team waiting next on the schedule, a cold streak to end the regular season could send the Sooners -- at one time considered slight favorites to end Kansas' streak of conference championships -- to a 4th place finish in the Big 12. And a one and done in the Big 12 Tournament could see OU fall all the way to the 3 line in the Big Dance -- hardly a kiss of death, but a more treacherous path to advance -- a 6 seed instead of an 8 or 9 in the Round of 32, and a 2 seed in the Sweet 16, instead of a 4.
So yeah; these last few games of the regular season may not be elimination games, but for teams with aspirations of making a Final Four run, the motivation is there to push to close out strong. Lon Kreuger will have his Sooners ready to compete, and so will Shaka Smart. This is a big one, and it's also a Grade-A rivalry game, and I expect it'll show in the way both teams come out and play.
Looking Back: OU 63, Texas 60 (Feb. 8th)
For a good portion of the first regular season meeting between these two teams, it looked like Texas might steal a huge road win at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman. The Horns jumped out to an early 15-5 lead, limited the Sooners to 22 points to take a 9-point advantage into intermission, and led 57-51 with 3:30 minutes to play in the game...
But right after Isaiah Taylor's "And-1" extended our lead to 6 points, Buddy Hield donned a cape and Reggie Miller'd us:
03:30 51-57 I. Taylor made free throw
03:11 54-57 B. Hield made 3-pointer
02:47 54-58 P. Ibeh 1 of 2 free throws
02:32 56-58 B. Hield made layup
02:00 58-58 B. Hield 2 for 2 free throws
01:19 60-58 B. Hield 2 for 2 free throws
00:57 60-60 I. Taylor 2 for 2 free throws
00:02 63-60 B. Hield made 3-pointer
00:00 63-60 B. Hield steal
There's a reason he's a favorite to win the Wooden Award, and as much as I hate that he's a Sooner, and as much of an antagonist as he's been for us over the last four years, I'd be lying if I said I don't enjoy watching him play. He's a pure basketball player, one of the rare ones blessed with elite talent and elite instincts, which is why a long, lucrative NBA career awaits him.
In any event, our trip to Norman -- disappointing as it was to lose -- was on the whole a positive, encouraging performance. Along with Hield, the main reasons we fell a little short were deficits shooting from beyond the arc (UT managed just 6 of 23 from 3-point range while the Sooners sank 9 of 22) and from the charity stripe (we wound up with only 10 attempts, making 6, while OU shot 18 free throws, connecting on 14). Those are deficits teams often encounter when they're the road team, and I'm not sure the loss in the first meeting requires much analysis beyond that: the Sooners were the home team. Also, too: Buddy Hield is a lethal basketball robot.
Keys to the Game
So how does the match up look this time around, and what can Texas do to maximize its chances of knocking off OU?
1. Start fast. This time we're at home, and though our fans pick and choose when to make an effort to show up and get rowdy, I'm expecting a capacity crowd on Saturday that's buzzing with energy and eager to be loud. When we get off to a fast start in front of rowdy and eager crowd, the Drum can get pretty frenetic and becomes a very tough place for the road team to win. Of course, our fans aren't so dedicated that they'll stand and jump and yell throughout the entire game even if Texas falls into a hole -- we're pretty easily subdued if you can get out in front of us for a while. There are other reasons we're advantaged playing at home, but a fast start would amplify that edge and make it very difficult for OU to steal one from us on the road.
2. Either limit the press to situational use, or commit to going all-out for 40 minutes of hell. I'm not convinced that pressing OU is a great strategy for generating advantages, and my instinct is to pick your spots to press but devote more energy to winning on the glass and keeping the Sooners off the free throw line. The one factor that pushes me the other way is OU's lack of depth. The Sooners rely heavily on their starting five, and in theory there might be some benefit to trying to wear out the Sooners starters with aggressive, relentless full court defense. But ask West Virginia how that worked out for them.
3. Utilize Kendal Yancy. Shaka Smart's usage of Yancy this season has been pretty difficult to get a handle on. I'm all for prioritizing minutes for freshmen with high ceilings, so I don't really mind that Yancy's minutes are mostly going to Eric Davis and Tevin Mack. But I'm still a bit confused with how Shaka is choosing to use Yancy. He gets solid minutes in one game, then relegated to token minutes the next. Whatever the thinking of the coaching staff, Yancy himself deserves credit for making the most of his opportunities. It's tremendously difficult to come in and play well right away when you're getting only a handful of minutes that are sporadically disbursed, but by and large Yancy has delivered valuable minutes regardless of when they occur. I am hoping that a solid chunk of them occur on Saturday against OU, as Yancy provides a nice offering of skills and attributes for the opponent. The freshmen are the foundation of our future, but right now, in this moment, Kendal Yancy is a strong body who provides an upgrade over Mack and Davis in defense and rebounding, with fewer turnovers and efficient scoring ability. Honestly, though, the big one is the defense: we need to do what we can to keep Hield in check, and I trust Yancy to bring more to that defensive effort than I do Davis or -- certainly -- Mack. Given how encouragingly Yancy has been performing on offense, if I'm Shaka Smart I'm taking advantage of what Yancy offers me against Hield and the Sooners.
4. Strong fundamentals. Doing well in the fundamental areas of basketball is a key to every game, so I know that I'm stating the obvious to some degree. I mention it anyway, though, simply because it strikes me as one of the pathways to an OU upset -- a sloppy performance on the defensive glass, a handful of needless fouls that send OU to the line too often, a smattering of bricks on our own free throws, and an increase in turnovers could flip the scoreboard a full 10 points, more than enough to turn a win into a loss.
Prediction: I'm not going to overthink this one too much. I like how we're playing right now, I'm positive we're going to come out playing hard and playing to win, and I'm hopeful that a great crowd today will have some sort of positive impact on the game, either in boosting our guys or rattling OU. The Sooners' backcourt is awfully good -- and nigh unbeatable when they're all hitting threes in bunches -- and Kreuger gets what he needs out of his post players (boards and paint defense from Spangler, and the ability to run some inside-out offense through Lattim). Hate them as much as we may, any honest assessment of this Sooners squad will admit that they're legit. But I think today is our day. I think we get a home court boost, better perimeter shooting than we had in Norman, and a winning defensive strategy for keeping Hield from launching into orbit. Texas pulls even with OU in the Big 12 standings, 73-66.