Oklahoma basketball: From frying pan into the fire as OU readies for No. 1 Baylor

NORMAN, OK - MARCH 1: Lester Medford
NORMAN, OK - MARCH 1: Lester Medford /

Coming off a smack-in-the-mouth 17-point loss at No. 3 Kansas, the men’s Oklahoma basketball team now gets what might be an even tougher challenge in taking on the country’s top-ranked team, the Baylor Bears.

It’s been 30 years since a Sooner basketball team has had a more daunting back-to-back challenge. In 1989-90, Billy Tubbs’ run-and-gun Sooner squad played No. 1 Missouri and No. 1 Kansas just two days apart and posted home victories against both.

This season, it might not be two No. 1 teams back to back on the schedule, but both Kansas and Baylor would be No. 1 seeds if the NCAA Tournament began today. And sorry to say, Lon Kruger’s Sooners are not the “Billy Ball” Oklahoma Sooners of three decades ago.

That’s not to say Oklahoma isn’t capable of upsetting the No. 1 Bears on Tuesday night, especially with the game being played at Lloyd Noble Center, where the Sooners are 11-1 this season. The lone loss was 66-52 to Kansas.

Another reason it’s not inconceivable Oklahoma could pull off the upset against Baylor is because of the tight battle between the two teams in the earlier game this season at Baylor. The Bears ended up winning, 61-57, but the contest was close for a good part of the second half.

Oklahoma is 45-18 all-time against Baylor and 23-6 when the game is played in Norman, including 20 of the last 24.

The Sooners have faced the No. 1 team in the country 20 times in basketball, winning seven times. They last beat a No. 1 team in 2002, defeating top-ranked Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament. Since then, they have lost six consecutive times against teams ranked No. 1.

What to watch for from Baylor

Baylor comes into the game in Norman with a 22-game winning streak. The Bears (23-1) haven’t lost since falling to Washington, 67-64, on Nov. 8 in the Armed Forces Classic in Anchorage, Alaska. They are a perfect 12-0 in conference play. Six of Baylor’s 23 wins this season have been over ranked teams, the most of any team in the country.

The Bears are not intimidated by road environments. They are 8-0 in true road games.

Baylor shoots extremely well, is an excellent defensive team and is playing with great confidence, three attributes that explain why the Bears are so difficult to defeat. The Bears’ .424 field-goal percentage ranks fifth nationally, which is the same ranking they hold in scoring defense, where they are limiting opponents to under 60 points per game (58.4).

Baylor’s guard play is among the best in the country. Sophomore Jared Butler averages 15.3 points per game, and redshirt junior MaCio Teague averages 14.4. Teague had a team-high 16 points against the Sooners in the first meeting this season.

Another thing the Bears do well is force turnovers. They lead the Big 12 in turnover margin (2.96).

What Oklahoma has to do to win the game

Oklahoma has three starters (Brady Manek, Kristian Doolittle and Austin Reaves) who are capable of scoring 20 points in any given game. If all three are scoring well, the Sooners are capable of beating any team in the country. The problem, however, is this has happened only a few times this season, despite the fact Oklahoma is one of the few teams in the country with three players averaging at least 14 points a game.

Kristian Doolittle has been the Sooners’ main man on offense the last few games. He is averaging 24.7 points in his last three games, scoring 27 in two of the last three. His 27 points at Kansas on Saturday were the most by a visiting player at Allen Field House this season.

Rebounding has been an issue all season for the Sooners. Only Kansas State and Texas have a worse rebounding margin than Oklahoma. This is particularly noticeable on the offensive boards, which limits second-chance scoring opportunities. The Sooners rank last in the Big 12, averaging just 8.0 offensive rebounds per game.

When Oklahoma manages to outrebound its opponent, however, the Sooners are 10-1 this season.

Two areas in which OU has been extremely proficient this year are in minimizing turnovers and limiting personal fouls.  The Sooners’ 10.9 turnovers per contest is the best in the Big 12, and their opponents go to the foul line the fewest times of any team in the conference.

Telling stats

Baylor is 49-4 over the last three seasons when leading at halftime. The Bears are 111-21 since 2015-16 when leading at any point in the second half.

Bottom line

This will be an extremely tough game for Oklahoma to win, but the Sooners could be catching the country’s No. 1 team at a good time and with the added advantage of playing the game at home. With a classic matchup with No. 3 Kansas coming up on Saturday for Baylor, the Bears could be caught looking ahead a little.

Oklahoma’s 11-1 home record is one of the best in the conference, but the Sooners have lost the last two times Baylor has come to Norman. Make it three, but in a game that will be much closer than many expect.

Baylor 67, Oklahoma 64