Oklahoma basketball: Now the reality check begins

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 19: Christian James
LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 19: Christian James /

It’s a new year for men’s Oklahoma basketball, but the last two months of 2018 were pretty darn good.

The Sooners are 11-1 this season and actually moved up two spots, to No. 23, in the Associated Press poll this week without playing a game. Oklahoma last played 11 days ago, coming from behind for a big road win at Northwestern, the fifth power conference team the Sooners have faced this season.

Oklahoma broke into the top 25 a week ago, checking in at No. 25 in the AP poll, the same spot they own this week in the USA Today Coaches Poll. The Sooners begin the rest of the 2018-19 season on Wednesday night at one of the toughest places to play not only in the Big 12, but anywhere in the country.

If this sounds an awful lot like where Oklahoma was at this time a year ago, you’re right. The Sooners jumped out to a 10-1 mark last season before beginning Big 12 play and won their first two conference games to improve to 12-1. But that was as good as it would get, so hold off the celebration.

Oklahoma will tip off the new year at No, 5 Kansas, which owns an overwhelming 147-67 all-time series record against the Sooners and is 76-16 over Oklahoma in games played in Lawrence. The last time OU won a game against the Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse was an 80-77 victory in 1993. As members of the Big 12 Kansas is 26-7 against the Sooners.

History is not an accurate predictor of the present or the future, but it is fairly clear that this is a very good Kansas team, as it has been for the past 14 seasons, all resulting in Big 12 championships. So Oklahoma will need to play a near perfect game to upend the Jayhawks, who are 11-1 themselves coming into Wednesday’s game an twice already this season have been the top-ranked team in college basketball.

Nine of the Sooners 12 games this season have been played away from the friendly confines of Lloyd Noble Center and OU is 8-1 in those games.

Fast breaks

Some statistical markers to watch for in OU conference opener are points in the paint, bench scoring and Brady Manek’s scoring output. The Sooners are averaging 34.6 points in the paint this season, and in the last three games — wins over USC, Creighton and Northwestern — that number has gone up to 44.0. What’s significant about that is Oklahoma has won 11 of the 12 games in which it has outscored its opponent in the paint.

Bench scoring has been a big plus for OU this season, as the Sooners typically play a rotation of 9 to 10 players. In the past two games, the Oklahoma reserves have combined for 65 total points.

Manek is one of three Sooners scoring in double figures. The difference being, when the 6-foot, 9-inch sophomore forward scores in double figures, Oklahoma is 18-4 the past two seasons. The Sooners are 11-0 when he scores at least 15 points and 8-0 when he hits three or more three-pointers.

Manek is also the best rebounder on the Big 12’s best rebounding team. The Sooners lead the Big 12, averaging 43.2 rebounds per game, and Manek is responsible for 7.5 of that total.

A major difference is this Oklahoma team, compared with the Sooners with First Team All-American Trae Young a year ago, is on the defensive end. OU is second in the conference and tied for seventh in the country, holding opponents to a field-goal percentage of .375. Last season, that number was .490, which ranked 155th in the nation.

Senior Christian James is OU’s leading scorer this season, averaging 17.9 points a game, fourth best in the Big 12, sandwiched between Kansas’ Dedric Lawson (19.6 points per game) and Lagerald Vick (15.8).

OU is 5-2 in Big 12 openers under head coach Lon Kruger, but this is the first time they’ve opened conference play against Kansas. Under Kruger, the Sooners have faced the Jayhawks twice in their second conference game, but both of those games were played in Norman.

A couple of stats that don’t bode well for the Sooners on Wednesday night: OU is 4-10 with Lon Kruger as head coach against teams ranked in the top five of the AP poll; the Sooners are 1-4 on the road in those games.

The bottom line

This Oklahoma team is better than last year’s Sooners, and they will prove that over the course of the 18-game Big 12 season. But the Sooners are not as talented or a good as Kansas, and this game is being played at historic Allen Fieldhouse, where visiting teams notoriously go to die.

Kansas is an eight-point favorite over the Sooners, according to Las Vegas handicapper sportsbookreview.com. I’d take the over on this one.

Kansas by double digits