Tonight, the Texas Longhorns get their first crack at the 19-3 Oklahoma Sooners. Lon Kruger's team is coming off a Saturday afternoon loss to Kansas State, and will be eager to pick up a win and continue on in the race for the Big 12 championship. Meanwhile, Shaka Smart's Longhorns come into the game with a 7-3 conference record that is the same as OU's, and a win in Norman would put Texas in serious contention for the league title as well.
But that win won't come easily.
The Oklahoma Sooners
Throughout this season, the Sooners have been among the nation's best teams. While it took a while to get there, Oklahoma spent three consecutive weeks at the top of the AP poll before losing to Kansas State on Saturday. OU's only losses other than this recent stumble in Manhattan came at Iowa State and during a thrilling triple overtime game against Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse.
Kruger has a talented and experienced squad. His best player is 6-4 senior Buddy Hield, currently the favorite to win the various national player of the year awards. Hield is an exceptional player, and a good reminder that the best college basketball players are frequently not all-world five star high school recruits. That is not to say that Hield wasn't well-regarded as a teenager, but he was seen as at best a fringe top 100 recruit coming into Oklahoma.
But that is old news; Buddy Hield is simply a fantastic basketball player. Of the many things that Hield does well, one thing in particular stands out -- Hield is a tremendous shooter. It is more than his ability to hit the shots that he takes that makes him dangerous. Hield's exceptionally quick release enables him to get off shots in windows that few other players can consider; he only needs the smallest amount of space and the shortest amount of time. Hield is currently 93-182 from three point range on the season. Everyone in the gym knows he is the most dangerous player on the floor, and yet he still gets his shots off.
Of course, Hield can also put the ball on the floor. He is shooting 54 percent from two point range and 90 percent from the free throw line, and yet when he does drive the basket the defense can see it almost as a sort of victory, because it means that he didn't get a chance to slip one in from beyond the arc.
Hield's teammates are not chopped liver. His compatriots in the backcourt are 6-0 junior Jordan Woodard and 6-4 senior Isaiah Cousins. Both Woodard and Cousins have been playing exceptionally well this season, which makes it hard for teams to key in on Hield. Both can shoot the ball from long range, handle the ball, and pass. While Woodard is the "point guard" Cousins is a perfectly good playmaker as well.
Dinjiyl Walker is the first guard off the bench for Kruger. Walker is mostly a perimeter shooter.
The combination of Hield, Cousins, and Woodard is trouble enough, but Kruger has a few more guys who are problems. 6-8 senior Ryan Spangler has gradually broadened his game since transferring from Gonzaga. He is now more than a physical and athletic rebounder since adding a perimeter shot to his game. He can step out and shoot the three in the pick and pop game, which allows OU to space the floor with four shooters.
Playing alongside Spangler inside is Khadeem Lattin, a rail-thin 6-9 sophomore shot blocker who is one of the better rim protectors in the Big 12. He is not a big part of the offense, but is active on the offensive boards. Lattin's backup is 7-0 Akolda Manyang, who is also a serious shot blocker.
Freshman Dante Buford will rotate in through the frontcourt as well. Buford has had an up and down first season, but he can step out and hit a shot.
Part of what makes the Big 12 so tough this season is that a number of programs are at the peak in their talent cycles, with upperclassmen filling most of the primary roles. Oklahoma perhaps best exemplifies this; the Hield/Cousins/Woodard/Spangler nucleus of this team is in its third year at OU.
OU is the No. 1 three-point shooting team in the country at 45 percent, which is two percentage points higher than number the second-place team. While the Sooners don't have a ton of depth, Kruger's top five are as good as any top five in the country. And coming off a loss, the Longhorns won't be able to catch them coasting.
As always, it is tough to win on the road during conference play. But Texas has done it twice already. So maybe they can go for a third?
It probably won't happen. But hey, it could.