Oklahoma basketball: Sooners seeking 1st SEC Challenge win since 2016

TUSCALOOSA, AL - JANUARY 27: Herbert Jones
TUSCALOOSA, AL - JANUARY 27: Herbert Jones /

Oklahoma basketball started out 3-0 in the first three years of the Big 12/SEC Basketball Challenge, but the Sooners are winless the last two years.

The Sooners (14-5, 3-4) hope to end the losing streak at two games when they host Vanderbilt at Lloyd Noble Center on Saturday. This will be the third time these two schools have met on the hardwood. Vanderbilt won the two previous games, the most recent occurring in 1994 as part of the postseason National Invitation Tournament.

Oklahoma defeated Missouri, Texas A&M and LSU in the first three years of the SEC Challenge, but were blown out at home by Florida, 84-52 in 2017 and lost 80-73 last season at Alabama. The Sooners are 9-9 against current SEC teams in Lon Kruger’s coaching tenure at OU.

Vanderbilt is 9-9 overall this season and 0-6 in the SEC, but the Commodores came very close to knocking off the No. 1 team in the land, Tennessee, on Wednesday night. The game was tied at 76 in regulation, but Tennessee managed to hold off Vandy in the overtime session to prevent the upset and register an 88-83 victory.

Oklahoma Sooners Basketball
Oklahoma Sooners Basketball /

Oklahoma Sooners Basketball

Three of the five Vanderbilt starters on Wednesday against Tennessee are scoring in double figures for the season, led by forward Simisola Shittu, who averages 13.4 a game. Guard Saben Lee averages 12.8 and forward Aaron Nesmith 10 a game. All three are freshmen.

Matt Ryan is the best Vanderbilt three-point shooter, averaging 36 percent for the season. Nesmith is next at 35 percent. He made four of seven against Tennessee.

The Commodores were 9-3 entering SEC play, but are still looking for their first conference win. Three of their six league losses were by nine or fewer points.

The Sooners are led by senior guard Christian James, averaging 17.2 points a game, and sophomore forward Brady Manek, 11.1. Kruger has inserted freshman Jamal Bieniemy and senior Rashard Odomes into the starting lineup the past two games. Bieniemy scored a team high 17 points in Wednesday’s win over Oklahoma State, including three three-pointers and six-for-six shooting, and had 11 against Texas last weekend.

Odomes contributed 11 points in both games and scrambled to retrieve a 50/50 ball on the floor against Oklahoma State, which he alertly shoveled off to an open Bieniemy, who hit a critical three-point shot to give the Sooners a commanding five-point lead late in the game.

Another good sign for the Sooners is that 6-foot, 10-inch center Jamuni McNeace appears to be back from the ankle injury that has sidelined him for much of the Big 12 season thus far. McNeace scored 13 points in the victory over Oklahoma State. That was his third highest point total of the season.

OU and Vanderbilt are fairly evenly matched on paper, although the Sooners have had more success in the win column and have done a better job of finishing off close games.

We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: The Sooners are 13-1 this season when they score 30 or more first-half points and are 11-1 when it they outrebound their opponents. OU is 8-1 when it holds its opponent under 70 points. Also, Oklahoma has won 21 of its last 24 games at Lloyd Noble Center, although the Sooners lost their last home outing there, 74-61 to Kansas State.