7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Oklahoma -7.5, Over/Under: 155.5
A pair of Big XII Foes traveling in very different directions face off tonight in Lubbock, as the Seventh-Ranked Texas Tech Red Raiders play host to the struggling Oklahoma Sooners in the second meeting between these teams, this time from United Supermarkets Arena. After a strong 12-1 start which coincidentally vaulted them to No. 4 in the Rankings, Oklahoma (16-8, 6-6 in Big XII) has been in a proverbial death spiral ever since, losing seven of their last eleven outings, including each of their past three. Clearly, conference play has been a challenge for Lon Kruger’s charges, who have disappointed greatly in a year in which the league is finally wide-open. Tied for Fourth and three games out of First Place, the Sooners are indeed running out of time to make a run towards claiming their first Big XII Title since the 2004-2005 campaign. With that said, the opportunity remains for this group to turn things around, given the fixtures remaining on their schedule; following their matchup with league-leading Texas Tech tonight, they’ll face successive encounters with the likes of Tenth-Ranked Kansas and Kansas State, all of whom are ahead of them in the Standings, though none of them figure to be easy, particularly given the first two affairs will be contested away from Norman. However, Kruger and Co. should be confident in themselves for the simple fact that they defeated both the Jayhawks and Red Raiders in their previous two meetings, of which included a 75-65 victory over the Red Raiders back on January 9th at Lloyd Nobile Center. Despite trailing at Halftime 29-31, the hosts put their proverbial foot on the gas in the Second Half, outscoring the visiting side 46-34 over the final Twenty Minutes of play. In a game in which both teams struggled to shoot the basketball, the Sooners carved quite the advantage of from the Charity Stripe, where they knocked down 18-of-21 Free-Throws (85.7%), or in other words, nine more singles than their opponent. Of course, it was none other than National Player of the Year candidate Trae Young (29.5 PTS, 44.3% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 9.4 AST, 1.9 STL) who led them to victory, scoring a game-high Twenty-Seven Points despite struggling mightily from the field, shooting just 7-of-23 overall (30.4%), including a dismal 3-of-13 from within the arc (23.1%), yet compensated by getting to the Stripe often (9-of-11) and distributing the ball with Ten Assists and collecting Four Steals. Young’s exploits aside, the Player of the Game had to be Senior Forward Khadeem Lattin (7.8 PTS, 60.0% FG, 6.7 REB, 1.3 STL, 2.3 BLK), who appeared to be just about everywhere, scoring Eleven Points on an efficient 4-of-5 Shooting (80.0%), while playing the role of enforcer with Eight Rebounds, a Steal, and a staggering Seven Blocks. Though that victory must seem like it was ages ago for the Sooners, who have gone just 3-6 since then, with a disappointing 88-80 defeat at a mediocre Iowa State team over the Weekend. Once again, Oklahoma struggled to shoot the basketball, netting just 42.9% of their Attempts, including a woeful 6-of-27 from beyond the arc (22.2%), despite a combined Forty-Four Points from the Christian James (11.9 PTS, 47.4%, 37.4% 3FG, 4.9 REB, 1.5 AST, 1.1 STL) and the aforementioned Young. The visitors were very sloppy in possession, totaling more Turnovers (16) than Assists (15), while the Cyclones’ Lindell Wigginton torched them for Twenty-Six Points. As the current negative trend continues, just what the hell has happened to this team over the past month? Well, conference play always has a habit of revealing one’s weaknesses and exploiting them, which has certainly been the case with Oklahoma, who have proven to be very one-dimensional (and not to mention dangerously thin) offensively, while leaving A LOT to be desired on the defensive end of the court. First and foremost, Kruger and his troops have relied far too heavily on Young, the nation’s leader in both scoring and assists, to carry them night in and night out, with opponents playing that to their advantage; against Big XII competition, the Freshman Point Guard has seen his shooting dip considerably to 41.7%, despite attempting a grandiose 22.0 Field Goals per Game, while at the same time committing a ridiculous 6.8 Turnovers, playing a large part in the 14.8 they commit as a team, by far and away the most in the league. Sure, he’s averaging a ludicrous 31.3 Points, but one could argue that his dominance of the basketball has been a detriment to the team’s balance. You can’t blame him for all of their problems on Defense though, for the Sooners have been arguably the worst team in the conference in this regard, ranking dead-last in Points Allowed (84.8), Field Goals Allowed (31.7) and Field Goals Attempted Against (70.8), including the most Three-Pointers Conceded (9.2) and Attempted Against (25.5), while permitting the second-most Assists (15.8) and forcing the second-fewest Turnovers (11.3).
Meanwhile, though all the headlines in the Big XII have revolved around the play of Trae Young, the shockingly weakened Kansas Jayhawks, and the marauding West Virginia Mountaineers, the team that has surprisingly risen to the top of the league is none other than Texas Tech (21-4, 9-3 in Big XII), who have a golden opportunity to secure their first Conference Championship in the history of their Program. However, in order to finally end the 13-Year Reign of the Jayhawks, they’re going to have to take care of their business over these final six games, with back-to-back dates with both Kansas and West Virginia in just two short weeks. a multitude of credit must to Chris Beard, who in just his second term in Lubbock has improved the Red Raiders immensely, taking them from a 18-12 also-ran a year ago to a potential Conference Champion in relatively short order. Then again, that’s precisely why he was hired. In just one season at Arkansas-Little Rock, the Head Coach made waves, securing a Treble of sorts, leading the Trojans to both Sun Belt Regular Season and Conference Tournament Championships, while taking matters one step further in the NCAA Tournament, crashing the First Weekend of the Big Dance as a 12-Seed, upsetting Purdue in the Round of 64. Fast-forward to the present, and with a win tonight he will have guided the Program to their most successful campaign since Bob Knight won Twenty-Three Games back in the 2003-2004 Season, and in line to win their most games since a 30-Win Year back in 1995-1996, which was ironically their final foray as a member of the old Southwest Conference. Owning a 5-1 record against the AP Top-25, which includes victories over the likes of both Kansas (85-73) and West Virginia (72-71), Beard’s charges will be looking for payback against the Sooners, who as we mentioned earlier topped them in a 75-65 defeat back in early January. This was a case in which one teams imply didn’t have enough firepower to compete over the course of Forty Minutes with their opponent, as the visiting Raiders endured a miserable offensive performance in which they managed to shoot just 37.3% from the field, including a dismal 6-of-25 from downtown (24.0%), while committing Thirteen Turnovers in comparison to dishing out a scant Six Assists. Stagnant would be the best way to describe them that day, for the lack of ball movement lent towards just one player scoring in double-figures, with Senior Guard Keenan Evans (18.4 PTS, 48.6% FG, 2.9 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.4 STL) scoring Nineteen Points on 7-of-12 shooting, including 1-of-5 from long-range (20.0%), while also recording Five Rebounds and an Assist. However, the rest of the Starting Lineup mustered just Seventeen Points on 6-of-18 Shooting (33.3%), with more Turnovers (7) than Field Goals (6). Needless to say, that’s NOT a recipe for success, folks. In hindsight, that loss was the beginning of a particularly rough stretch for Texas Tech, who would drop two out of their following three contests, before embarking on their current 6-Game Winning Streak. In many ways, these guys have been the antithesis to Oklahoma, employing stifling Defense to compensate for a lack of offensive production. The dichotomy is really quite striking, with Beard’s troops ranking tops in the Big XII in Points Allowed (65.3), both Three-Pointers (6.3) and Three Pointers Attempted Against (18.7), and Assists Allowed (10.0), despite ranking Next-to-Last in Scoring (71.3), both Field Goals Made (24.3) and Attempted (54.7), along with Three-Pointers (6.5), all the while sitting at the bottom of the league in the Three-Point Percentage (32.5%). Simply put, if you haven’t gotten the gist at this point, this is NOT a good offensive team by any means, with Beard knowing full well his charges’ strengths and limitations, choosing instead to focus on slowing the game down to a crawl, and smothering their opponents on Defense. The uglier the game, the better for the Raiders, who excel from the Charity Stripe, ranking Second in both Free-Throws Made (16.2) and Attempted (22.1), while benefitting greatly from getting out in transition via forcing Turnovers, collecting 14.8 per Game, which is also good for second in the conference. As it relates to tonight’s affair, if Texas Tech can continue to control the tempo as they have over the past six contests, then they should be able physically manhandle Oklahoma, otherwise they risk getting overwhelmed like they did the first meeting. Simply put, they don’t have the guns to outshoot the Sooners, so they’ll have to resort to shortening the game, which is how they’re going to have to approach the rest of the season if they wish to put their names in the scholl’s record book.