For the first time in four years, the Oklahoma Sooners men's basketball team is in the conversation for a berth in the NCAA tournament. The Sooners find themselves 12-3 so far this season, and 3-0 in Big 12 conference play, tied with Kansas and Kansas State for first in the league.
However, while the Sooners have several solid wins on their resume—at West Virginia, home against Oklahoma State, home against Ohio—they have yet to get a big, statement win.
That's where Saturday's trip to Manhattan, Kan. comes in.
A win over Kansas State on the road would be exactly the kind of signature win this OU team is looking for to help solidify its tournament resume. The Wildcats, ranked No. 16 in the country, are 14-2, having lost to just No. 5 Michigan and No. 8 Gonzaga. The Wildcats' best win came against No. 10 Florida in Kansas City three days before Christmas.
Beating the Wildcats in Bramlage Coliseum isn't an easy thing to do, but the Sooners have managed to win two of the past three meetings in Manhattan, 61-53 in 2009 and 63-60 last year.
Last season's win came after an equally surprising 82-73 OU win over the Wildcats in Norman. At the time, it seemed like the Sooners were turning a corner of sorts, but instead went on to lose six straight games before splitting their last four games of the year.
Not only do the Sooners need a win Saturday to enhance their tournament resume, but also to boost their confidence in conference road games. The Sooners did knock off West Virginia Jan. 5 to begin conference play, equaling their highest win total in Big 12 road games in the past three years. Combined, the Sooners are a woeful 2-23 in conference road games the past three seasons.
The Sooners have been successful this season because simply put, they are more talented than they have been in a long time. Freshman Buddy Hield and Wyoming transfer Amath M'Baye have provided the Sooners with a much-needed offensive boost, while the team as a whole has made a concerted effort to be defined based on its defensive performance.
Without that influx of talent, there's no way there Sooners are in the place they're in now; no way they're able to go 10 deep every game; no way they're able to start the season 12-3; no way they're able to think about an NCAA tournament berth.
What head coach Lon Kruger has been able to do in his first two seasons in Norman has been pretty spectacular. While the record may not show it, the Sooners were much better last season than they were in 2010-11. Excluding blowout losses to Kansas, Missouri and Texas Tech, they were competitive in every conference game last season.
Now, the Sooners are taking the next step and actually winning those games they lost a year ago due to inexperience and lack of talent, and they smell March Madness because of it.
Oklahoma proved it can win in Manhattan a year ago, but a win Saturday would do a lot for the Sooners' tournament resume and for the confidence of the program as a whole.