Oklahoma basketball: Can Sooners overachieve in Big 12 farewell season?

Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Men's Oklahoma basketball entered the new year with what many would many college basketball fans --including OU fans -- would say was a surprising 12-1 record.

After all, the Sooners were coming off of a sub-par 15-17 2023-24 season in which they finished tied for last place in the Big 12 with a 5-13 conference record. And for the third straight season, head coach Porter Moser was having to rebuild the roster because of transfers and graduation.

The 2023-24 Oklahoma roster included six incoming transfers and just two starters from the previous year. No big surprise then that the Sooners were picked to finish 12th out of 14 teams in the preseason poll conducted by the Big 12 coaches. What no one realized at the time was that this was OU's best transfer class in the three years that Moser has been head coach.

OU jumped out to a 10-0 start, including wins over then 25-ranked USC, Iowa and Arkansas and broke into the top-25 rankings for the first time under Moser. The Sooners suffered their first loss of the season to a North Carolina team currently ranked in the top-10 nationally and completed the nonconference portion of the schedule with a 12-1 record. It was OU's best season start since 2015-16.

The Sooners opened up conference play with a win at home over Iowa State to improve to 13-1 and move into the top-10 nationally. The OU men faced their first real adversity of the season this past week, however, going down twice, at TCU in mid-week and then at always tough Kansas on the weekend, in their first true road games of the season.

There are too many not merely good but very good teams in the Big 12. That's the way it's been for a number of seasons and the reason the Big 12 has been recognized in recent years by both RPI and NET measures as the best league in college basketball. And the strength of the conference only got better with the addition of Houston, Cincinnati, BYU and UCF this season.

Eleven of the 14 Big 12 teams, including Oklahoma, opened the conference schedule with at least 11 wins and 10 with two or fewer losses. Now all of those teams are starting to play each other. which is certain to create chaos in the conference standing as the season progresses.

We've already seen No. 2 Kansas get beat at unranked UCF and former No. 2 Houston losing consecutive games at Iowa State and TCU. That's going to continue to happen this season in the Big 12 with so many talented teams. Kansas and Houston are clearly the class of the conference, but it looks to be a dogfight among up to 10 other teams for spots three through 11 or 12 in the Big 12 standings at season's end.

Eight Big 12 teams are ranked in this week's Associated Press and Coach Poll, including three in the top 10. The Sooners have already encountered three of those teams and others are straight ahead.

Protecting your home court is almost a must to finish in the upper half of a league as fiercely competitive as the Big 12 and at least break even in games on the road. Seven Big 12 teams, including Oklahoma, are undefeated at home so far this season, and four others have lost just once on their home floor.

The Sooners are 10-0 at Lloyd Noble Center and play game number 11 on Wednesday night hosting West Virginia, which is 0-5 away from home this season.

I think most of us will agree that this Oklahoma team, despite all the newcomers, is the best one Moser has had at OU. But as stated earlier, the Sooners are making what is their final lap in the best conference in college basketball. There are no easy games in the Big 12, even when playing at home and especially on the road. Every team in the conference is capable of beating every other team on any given day or night.

While the Oklahoma football team is certain to find the SEC a much tougher conference than the Big 12, the Sooner basketball team should benefit from the move to the SEC. But in the meantime, OU still has basketball games to play this season in the Big 12 -- at least 16 more of them, half of the season, to be exact. Eight of those games are against teams that either are currently or have been ranked this season and seven are on the road.

The Sooners are 1-2 through three conference games. They are probably going to have to win at least nine conference games, which would give them a .500 record in league games, to make the NCAA Tournament, something OU has not been able to do since the 2020-21 season. Can they do that? Sure they can? But their likely going to need some Sooner Magic along the way.

Eight of OU's remaining games are at home (West Virginia, Texas, Texas Tech, BYU, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Houston and Cincinnati). Could the Sooners run the table at home? Yes, but probably not. They are likely to lose at least once or twice at the LNC? Any more than that, though, could put them in serious jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season.

The Sooners are going to need at least two or three road wins to assure them of at least breaking even in their final Big 12 run.

Later this week, we will rank Oklahoma's remaining conference games according to degree of difficulty. For right now, here is how we see the Sooners faring in those remaining games:

Jan. 17 -- Home vs. West Virginia: OU win

Jan. 20 -- @ Cincinnati: OU loss

Jan. 23 -- Home vs. Texas: OU win

Jan. 27 -- Home vs. Texas Tech: OU win

Jan. 30 -- @ Kansas State: OU loss

Feb. 3 -- @ UCF: OU win

Feb. 6 -- Home vs. BYU: OU win

Feb. 10 -- Home vs. Oklahoma State: OU win

Feb. 13 -- @Baylor: OU loss

Feb. 17 -- Home vs. Kansas: OU loss

Feb. 24 -- @Oklahoma State: OU win

Feb. 28 -- @Iowa State: OU loss

March 2 -- Home vs. Houston: OU loss

March 5 -- Home vs. Cincinnati: OU win

March 9 -- @Texas: OU loss

If the remaining Oklahoma schedule were, in fact, to play out this way, the Sooners would finish the regular season with an overall record of 21-10 and 9-9 in the Big 12. Would that be enough to get them into the NCAA Tournament? That is still to be determined.