Amy Lawrence has said that the Big 12 has become to college basketball what the SEC has become to college football.
Lon Kruger doesn’t disagree.
“It’s probably a good comparison,” the Oklahoma head coach said on CBS Sports Radio’s After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “Every night you line up, whether it be at home or on the road, it’s going to be a battle. It’s a grind. It’s one you look forward to. That’s why players sign on to play in the Big 12. They know it’s going to be tough every night, and yet it does wear you down a little bit throughout the year.”
The No. 3 Sooners (21-5, 9-5) started the year 15-2, with their only losses coming at then-No. 1 Kansas in triple overtime by three points and at then-No. 19 Iowa State by five. Oklahoma rattled off four wins after falling in Ames but then lost three of four before winning at No. 10 West Virginia, 76-62, this past Saturday.
The Sooners played with an energy against West Virginia that had been absent in their previous three or four games. Lawrence saw that. So did Kruger.
“I think that’s part of the burden that came with that No. 1 ranking,” he said. “All of a sudden, the pressure shifted a little bit, we’re not making shots and our energy defensively – because we’re not making shots – is diminished a little bit. I think the guys stepped back and they recognized what they had been going through and kind of rededicated themselves to getting back to playing for each other and competing like crazy and having fun – and I thought they did do that in Morgantown.”
While Oklahoma is a longshot to win the Big 12 regular season championship – the Sooners trail No. 2 Kansas (24-4, 12-3) by two-and-a-half games – they will be a tough out both in the conference tournament and in the NCAA Tournament. Indeed, the Sooners are the rare team that combines talent with experience. They’ve used the same starting five in all 26 of their games, and three of those starters are seniors, including Buddy Hield, who is averaging 25.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
Experience and continuity should pay dividends for the Sooners in March.
“There’s no substitute for experience and there’s no shortcut for getting there,” Kruger said. “These guys have played a lot together. They’re not going to be surprised by an atmosphere on the road. They’re not going to be surprised by the quality of the opposition. They can focus on doing what they need to in preparation, fully knowing what lies ahead and how tough that challenge is.”