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January 17, 2013
They couldn't be picked to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 and lose to Texas Tech in its rebuilding year. They couldn't afford to lose a game at home in 2013's wide open Big 12 regular season race.
Sure, No. 4 Kansas is calling the shots. Some things are reluctant to change. But the Oklahoma team Texas Tech men's basketball coach Chris Walker saw beat his Red Raiders 81-63 in Lloyd Noble Center is a tournament team.
"Right now, absolutely," Walker said. "I think they'll be an NCAA tournament team."HD: Eddie Radosevich & RJ Young Texas Tech postgame
After tonight, only three teams remain undefeated in conference play, and one of those teams is Oklahoma. OU's win against Texas Tech (8-7, 1-3) shouldn't come as a surprise this season, even if it sets up a showdown of conference unbeatens at 3 p.m. Saturday with No. 16 Kansas State.
"Kansas State is very good," OU's Lon Kruger said. "They're a highly ranked team in the country, and playing very well."
This is the first OU team since 2009 to begin its Big 12 schedule 3-0. With 12 wins and just three losses -- one coming from default Big 12 champion No. 8 Gonzaga -- the Sooners are poised to raise a little cane.
The man most responsible for OU's opportunity to put the nation on notice is the only man on the roster with experience in the NCAA tournament: senior forward Romero Osby.
"Every win is big for us," he said. "Especially a Big 12 win and being able to be 3-0 in conference, and that's good. But we want to just continue to try to move forward and try to get better and not rest on our laurels."
Kruger couldn't hope to do much better than having a married man and father of a 3-year-old daughter lead his team. Responsibility is a large part of leading.
"It was clear from the start," Kruger said. "I mean, Ro came up right away and said, 'Coach I want to be a leader. I want to be a guy you can bank on, depend on.' I said fantastic."
Osby was a part of the 2008-09 Mississippi State team that reached the Big Dance, so he knows what it takes. He knows what's at stake for the remaining four seniors who've never tasted March Madness, who've never known a winning season as a Sooner.
That's why they couldn't lose to the Red Raiders on Norman soil.
Osby's led the Sooners in scoring eight times this season, but he'd have to lead from the Sooners from the bench in the first half, scoring just two points in seven minutes.
No, the first half belonged to those seniors with something to prove and a long-term goal to attain. Senior point guard Sam Grooms came off the bench for four assists and three rebounds in the first half, while senior forward Andrew Fitzgerald led all scorers in the first 20 minutes with 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting.
Fitzgerald would end with his best statistical night this season: 12 points, four boards. After being relegated to the bench, he's responded in a manner befitting of a senior and team captain.
He admitted he's been working through a slump, and this game did much to break a recent run of mediocre games.
"My coaches and my teammates always want to build my confidence up," Fitzgerald said.
Osby asserted himself in the second half, scoring seven points less than three minutes into the final 20 minutes and attacking the rim with every opportunity. His presence allowed the Sooners to build their 34-29 halftime lead to double figures by the 15-minute mark of the second half.
Osby finished the game with a team-high 17 points and six boards.
"I gotta give credit to my teammates," Osby said. "They just found me in certain spots. I didn't really have to really work for it as far as making any moves."
Oklahoma scored 34 points in the paint and 16 points off turnovers.
"We weren't physical enough," Texas Tech's Jaye Crockett said. "We didn't put bodies on anyone. We just left them open to get second chances and third chances and fourth chances. It just killed us.
Hield continues to validate Kruger's decision to start him since Oklahoma's game against Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Against Texas Tech, he scored 16 points, grabbed seven boards and dropped three dimes.
Slowly, Hield is becoming not just a scorer but a complete guard. That's for the best as OU will need him more so than ever through the next two weeks of Big 12 competition.