The Big 12 Tournament could turn into the classic many expected, if the two most popular and highest-ranked teams survive tonight’s semis. KU v Baylor. OU v WVU. A Kansas – Oklahoma final would be a ratings bonanza and could set the league up for a pair of NCAA one-seeds.
*But first, the Sooners must avoid falling victim to the dreaded ‘third time’s a charm’ fate we often see as Bob Huggins’ 2-seeded defensive-oriented club tries to beat Lon Kruger’s 3-seeded offensive-oriented Sooners, after OU won both regular season meeting. But that can wait, as OU will need an even better performance tonight than they had last night in advancing past Iowa State, 79-76.
*The Mountaineers are a salty bunch. The Sooners can be salty and are often explosive. Tonight, we have a pair of 25-win clubs; the nation’s No. 6 Sooners and No. 9/8 Mountaineers.
*WVU has been on a role since OU got ‘em in Morgantown. They’ve roared to five straight wins: by 20 v TCU, 11 at Baylor, 22 at Tech, 14 at OSU, and by 10 over ISU -- their closest game. That’s impressive. How good are they? They played the same Big 12 schedule as OU. Same teams, same at home and on the road. No excuses. And WVU won one more game than the Sooners. Thus, they got to cakewalk TCU in the quarters while OU had to wrestle No. 21 ISU, in Hilton South. Just as it should’ve been.
*Keep an eye on: I really like the strong-as-a-bull looking senior guard Jaysean Paige. He’s led them in scoring the past four games and 12 times on the road in the Big 12 (no starts in Morgantown, interestingly) games when he averaged a team-high 16.8 PPG. Paige finished 6th in the league averaging 14.3 PPG.
*6-9, 255 pound junior Devin Williams is one of two special rebounders. Williams averaged 9.1 RPG (second in Big 12) and 6-7, 220 pound senior Jonathon Holton grabbed 7.8 per, meaning that tandem gobbled up 16.9 RPG!
*Jevon Carter was an all league defender and will pester OU’s guards all night. Avoiding turnovers against this cat will be priority No. 1 for OU’s backcourt.
LAST NIGHT IT WAS BUDDY BALL AND BETTER THAN EVER
*Buddy Hield’s brilliance was complemented by the strong 1-2 punch inside from Ryan Spangler and Khadeem Lattin. We noted 24 hours ago that the play of that long tandem would be the key to the Big 12 quarters. Buddy’s spectacular night would have to have been the key in retrospect, but Spangler’s 13th double-double of the season and 30th career (10 points, 12 rebounds) was paramount. Every big rebound seemed to end in his tatted arms. And game-deciding free throws along with plays were made by OU’s Slim Reaper. When the game was on the line, the gut-level toughness the situation required was welcomed by the senior who is not someone you’d ever want to meet in a dark alley.
*Meantime, Lattin avoided foul trouble – stop the presses, 30 minutes zero/zip/nada personal fouls – and triggered the game turning decidedly OU’s way with back-to-back blocks in the final ten seconds of the first half. Lattin hit a pair of sweet-lookin’ 17-foot jumpers and committed just one turnover while coming through when it mattered most.
*The Sooners overcame a slow offensive first half by ringleader -- Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard – a combined 1 of 8 and 2 of 13 if you toss in the veteran Spangler. Woodard was helped out by a pair of first half hoops by backup Dinjiyl Walker, who scored 5 points with no turnovers in 9 minutes.
*Woodard will need to hit open threes tonight and Cousins will need to play the way he did in the second half. Cousins turned it around in the second stanza, ending with 10 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and just 2 turnovers in 34 game minutes. Defensively, his length, athleticism and competitiveness helped him be that invaluable two-way guard needed at every level of basketball.
*Then there was Buddy. Never better. Thirty nine points, the second most in the 20-year history of the tourney. Fourteen of twenty one shooting. More importantly, 12 of 15 from inside the arc (he may be the only guy so good from three that we are wowed when he excels from two). Bold, creative drives to the hoop were finished with either hand. Fadeaway bank shots off the glass, a favorite of mine from the old Max Marquardt School of Banked Shots. Best of all, when Hield and the Sooners melted down the stretch of multiple games late in the season, against strong ISU defense, Hield was tough as nails. Put it on the floor – and didn’t turn it over as much as we’ve seen – and determined to get to the hoop or get to the line. Or both. A leader. On both ends. Key rebounds, 9 in all. And two big steals that turned into transition. To me, Hield should have solidified his National Player of the Year status.
*Tonight, Buddy will need to bring it again. And he’ll be tested. Huggins is a defensive wizard with competitive athletes throughout the roster. 6-2 guard Jevon Carter was a defensive first-team all-conference player and averages 1.8 steals per, second in the league. Hield must know where he’s going before committing to the dribble as he’ll be doubled in the halfcourt just as he’ll be doubled in the forecourt.
*The most important statistics tonight will be OU’s number of turnovers and it’s 3-point percentage. WVU is No. 1 in Big 12 defense allowing just 66 PPG. They are No. 1 in steals, No. 1 in turnover margin, No. 1 in rebounding (slightly ahead of No. 2 OU). These cats will get after you. In Norman, they hounded Buddy into a bad shooting night where he was held to 17 points. The Sooners surprised me when they went to Morgantown, protected the basketball (committed just 9 turnovers) and left with an impressive 14-point win. Buddy had 29 in that one and will likely need that again tonight.
IN THE END
*I expect this to come down to another game where OU has a late lead and the result of frenetic defensive pressure will ultimately determine whether an OU-KU is in the works. I’m taking Oklahoma because they’ve won more big games, they have a substantial offensive advantage (if Woodard and other shooters contribute), and Oklahoma proved last night that they have decided to attack when attacked. It worked last night. I’m saying it’ll work again in the semis.