Oklahoma basketball: What’s with Sooners’ giant-killer January?

Jan 23, 2021; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners guard De'Vion Harmon (11) drives to the basket around Kansas Jayhawks guard Christian Braun (2) during the first half at Lloyd Noble Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 23, 2021; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners guard De'Vion Harmon (11) drives to the basket around Kansas Jayhawks guard Christian Braun (2) during the first half at Lloyd Noble Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports /

As the calendar turned to January, Oklahoma basketball found itself staring down the barrel of three consecutive games against teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 10.

What’s more, those games were all taking place over a seven-day stretch, and the two most daunting — Kansas and Baylor — were both on the road against what at the time appeared to be the two best teams in the Big 12.

Oklahoma began the new year unranked, with a 5-2 record. In fact, OU basketball wasn’t even on the radar of the media representatives who vote in the AP poll or the head coaches who make up the voting panel of the Coaches Poll. The Sooners weren’t receiving votes in either weekly poll.

Lon Kruger’s team went 1-2 against the three top-10 teams it faced the first week in January, defeating then-No. 9 West Virginia for its first win of 2020-21 over a ranked team, but losing at Kansas and Baylor. The loss to the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse, however — a place where OU has not won a game since 1993, or 20 consecutive games.

The loss at Kansas was by just four points, in a game that was close right down to the wire, and served strong notice of what Oklahoma was capable of accomplishing going forward.

And in the Sooners’ case, what came around at the beginning of the month came around once again at the end of January. Oklahoma began this past week with a schedule that included three more games in the same week facing teams ranked in the nation’s top-10.

If you’re counting, that’s six games in less that 30 days against top-10 teams, easily the most difficult January stretch of games in college basketball this season. And this does include Oklahoma’s final game in December and first contest in February, both of which are against a team, Texas Tech, that will likely move up from its No. 10 standing in last week’s AP poll.

So to summarize, nine of the Sooners’ last 11 opponents after this Monday night, have been teams ranked in the top-15 in the AP poll at the time the game was played, and eight of those have been in the top 10.

Does anyone doubt that Oklahoma basketball competes in the best conference?

And there’s one other thing. Eight of those ranked opponents are Big 12 teams, which should be more than enough validation that the Big 12 is the strongest basketball conference this season.

Six Big 12 teams, including No. 24 Oklahoma, which broke into the rankings for the first time in 2020-21, were ranked in the AP Top 25 last week. And Oklahoma State received votes, which would have made them the No. 31 team based on the votes received in the AP poll.

Oklahoma Sooners Basketball
Oklahoma Sooners Basketball /

Oklahoma Sooners Basketball

What this means is, virtually every Big 12 game this season features one or more ranked teams.

With Oklahoma’s improbable win over No. 9 Alabama, winners of 10 straight and the unlikely leader in the Southeastern Conference this season, the Sooners finished the month with four wins against six top-10 teams and made history in the process.

Only two other teams have beaten four top-10 teams in the same month since the Associated Press basketball poll was introduced in 1948-49, and no team has done it since North Carolina State in 1974. That Wolfpack team won the national championship.

The Sooners are also the first team since 1996, according to Stats, Inc., to play six top-10 teams in the same month.

Since Oklahoma set out on its January giant-killing tour, Joe Lunardi, the wizard of ESPN Bracketology has advanced the Sooners’ NCAA Tournament projection through a series of progressions that include “last four out,” to “last four byes,” to 11 seed, 10 seed, 9 seed and now a 6 seed.

What’s amazing about this historic run of high-quality Oklahoma wins is that the Sooners have managed to do so without two of their best players available for every game. Brady Manek, a four-year starter and the team’s third-leading scorer this season, missed two games because of COVID-19, and Austin Reaves, who leads OU in scoring and is sixth in the Big 12, averaging 15 points a game, was unavailable for the win over Alabama.

So how is Oklahoma managing to play at such a high level in a conference in which more than half the teams rank among the top 25 in the country?

Lon Kruger says his team works hard in practice, they carry over that tough-mindedness into the games and, most important, they believe in themselves. The Sooners also have more depth and versatility this season than they’ve had in recent years.

When fully healthy, Reaves and Manek are the Sooners’ two best players, but the 2020-21 edition of Oklahoma basketball has shown that it does not have to rely on one or both Reaves and Manek carrying the team every game. This team, although picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 in the Preseason Big 12 Poll by the league coaches, is a good example of the ancient adage, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Sophomore guard De’Vion Harmon, who led Oklahoma with 18 points in the win over Alabama, has averaged 18.2 points over the last five games. Eight different Sooners average at least 6.0 points and nearly 20 minutes a game. What’s more, OU plays strong team defense, they generally don’t commit many personal fouls and they are the best in the conference and one of the best nationally in taking care of the basketball.

All of that translates into team wins and, after all, basketball is a team game.

There’s plenty of basketball still to be played — nearly half a season — before tournament time, and a lot could happen to change the trajectory Oklahoma is currently on. The one thing that seems certain, however, is the Sooners’ January success should sit well with the NCAA Tournament selection committee.