The Big 12 Bubble: Oklahoma Basketball Faces Tough Stretch
At this point in the schedule, the Big 12 is shaping up to have an interesting race regarding the bubble of the NCAA Tournament, and Oklahoma basketball is right at the heart of the conversation. The Sooners are a modest surprise, off to a 13-5 start, including victories in four of six Big 12 games. But, a crucial and difficult stretch in their schedule starts tonight when they visit Baylor (7 PM ET, ESPNU). Then OU hosts Kansas State on Saturday (6 PM ET, ESPN2).
Next week doesn’t get any easier for the Sooners, with a Wednesday game at fellow contender Iowa State (7 PM ET, ESPNU) and finally a game on Saturday with first-place Kansas (4 PM ET, ESPN). If you’re wondering about Oklahoma basketball, you can watch it all unfold over the next couple weeks and TheSportsNotebook will get a head start by taking a closer look at what the Sooners bring to the table.
Forward play is where Oklahoma is most consistent, with senior Romero Osby and junior Amath M’Baye. Both are double-digit scorers, and while the Sooners could use a little more rebounding, the two forwards do get six apiece per game. The best player overall is in the backcourt, with Steve Pledger. The only player on the team who attempts three-point shots with any regularity, Pledger averages 11 ppg and hits 37 percent from behind the arc.
The X-factors are a pair of freshman guards, in Buddy Hield and Je’lon Hornbeak. Neither have had a huge impact to date, although Hornbeak’s 39 percent shooting from three-point range is good enough to suggest that maybe he should launch a few more from long range, particularly given the lack of a true muscle player underneath.
Oklahoma’s big win in conference play has been a 77-68 home victory over Oklahoma State, another team in the mix for the NCAA Tournament bubble. It’s noteworthy that in that game, Hield and Hornbeak combined to shoot 5-for-7 from three-point range. Oklahoma also played good defense and held their in-state rivals to a little below 40 percent shooting from the field.
The two losses in league action have been Kansas and Kansas State. The most obvious point on both is that these were on the road, while the Oklahoma State win came in Norman. What was most lacking was consistent defense, as OU allowed the opponents to shoot in the mid-to-high 40s from the floor. What was also lacking was the three-point shooting. The Sooners only made six threes combined in the two games, and Hiel went 0-for-5 in the Kansas game.
For better or for worse, Osby and M’Baye were very consistent in these three games, with performance mostly tracking their season averages and little variation from game-to-game. That’s mostly for the better, as consistency should be where it starts for your key players. However, the inability of either, or of Pledger, to find another gear, doesn’t bode well for Oklahoma’s chances of winning big games the rest of the way.
I’m very skeptical of OU’s ability to navigate this tough schedule stretch ahead. If they even steal one win out of the four games, they’d get to 5-5 in the league and have a shot at making a run to the NCAA Tournament. But getting even that one win is going to be a big challenge. If it were me, I’d tell Hornbeak to step up and shoot. I think we’ve established that Osby, M’Baye and Pledger are good college players, but not ones who will go to the next level. Whether it’s Hornbeak, Hield, or someone from off the grid, the Sooners need a fourth wheel in the offense.
ELSEWHERE ON THE BIG 12 BUBBLE
Oklahoma is currently projected as a #10 seed by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. In that same territory is Oklahoma State and Iowa State, who go head-to-head tonight.
Of all the Big 12 bubble teams, Oklahoma State would look to be in the best shape. While they’re 3-3 in the conference, the losses have all been on the road and to fellow contenders—OU, Kansas State and Baylor, and the Cowboys will pay a visit to Kansas on Saturday. That means Okie State will have every big conference road game out of the way by the time the Super Bowl kicks off. They’ll be set up for a strong February run, and are led by entertaining freshman Marcus Smart. The guard averages 13 points/6 rebounds/5 assists per game and is being talked about as a one-and-done who will be a top 10 NBA draft pick in June. And in case you’re curious, he’s not related to Keith Smart, the current head coach of the Sacramento Kings and one-time hero for Bob Knight’s Indiana team back in 1987.
Iowa State is the most enigmatic of the bubble teams. They’ve managed to lose to Texas Tech, but also took Kansas to overtime in Lawrence, and beat Kansas State. The Cyclones are led by a good forward tandem of Will Clyburn and Melvin Ejim, who combine for 25 ppg, and more importantly, they pound the glass for a combined 17 boards per night. Iowa State further benefits from senior transfer Korie Lucious running the show. The former Michigan State player is kicking in 10 points per game and averages five assists. It’s not going to be an easy ride for Iowa State, but they’ve got the core talent to separate from Oklahoma and make the NCAA Tournament.