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January 7, 2014
HOOPS: Hosting crucial back-to-back conference games
When the buzzer sounded on Feb. 9, 2013 at Lloyd Noble, OU fans rushed the floor.
They didn't seem to care that event staff dressed in highlighter yellow shirts had formed a barricade around the square court. They didn't seem to care that it might not be totally safe for them to career toward the north basketball goal where the Sooners had already begun their celebration.
SCOOPHD: SOONERS 'ROCK CHALK' READY
They only wanted to show their appreciation for a team that was well and truly on its way to the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years.
"Last year, that was an awesome experience," said senior Tyler Neal.
The Sooners showed just how far they'd come last season when they beat No. 5 Kansas 72-66 for the program's first victory over a top 5 team in seven years.
This season Oklahoma has an opportunity to defeat Kansas at home again and make a run at another NCAA tournament bid and, maybe, contend for the Big 12 title.
Kansas is still trying to find its identity amid a group of talented freshmen, including Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins is projected by some as the man most likely to be selected No. 1 overall in the upcoming NBA Draft.
The Sooners will have eyes on him, certainly. But they can't forget about speedy guard Naadir Tharpe who is at the controls for the Kansas offense. Or 6-foot-8 forward Perry Ellis who is averaging better than 13 points and six boards per game. Or 7-foot, 250-pound center Joel Embiid in the paint.
The talent for Kansas is real. Its roster is chock-full of players that can beat any team, including the Sooners, but the Jayhawks' worse enemy this season has been themselves.
Kansas coach Bill Self noted that in all four of Kansas' losses this year his team has trailed. That's what happened last Sunday when the Jayhawks took a rare loss inside Allen Fieldhouse to San Diego State.
"When you play from behind, it's like every mistake is magnified the longer the game goes on because there's not time to catch back up," Self said. "That's where we kind of screwed up.
"We kind of just lollygagged -- lollygagged is probably the not a great term for us as is probably in Webster's dictionary. But we kind of jacked around during certain parts of the game, but we've had opportunities and let those opportunities slip away."
Still, the Jayhawks' non-conference slate has prepared them for what's to come during their Big 12 schedule.
The Big 12 regular season title race is as wide open as it's ever been since Self joined the league 11 years ago.
There's been one year in Self's tenure where Oklahoma State wrestled away the regular season title from Lawrence, Kan. But that's it.
Since 2005, only Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas State have earned a share of the conference title banners -- all with Kansas laying claim to the other half.
For the last 10 years, the Jayhawks have ruled over the Big 12 like Jay-Z rules over hip-hop. Still, Kansas has proven vulnerable at a time when the Big 12 might be at its most competitive and the league's parity at its height.
"Thing about it is, and I don't have a crystal ball, I'll be shocked if we don't play eight games out of our 18-game league schedule that doesn't come down to the last minute," Self said.
"So the team that executes best in the last minute or in the last two or three minutes of games probably will be the team that has the best chance to win the league because everybody's going to play close games."
The Jayhawks won't walk into Lloyd Noble with a top 5 ranking and nearly unblemished record. This time when OU plays Kansas it will be the Sooners who own the better record and have the wind at their backs.
In this third season at Oklahoma, Lon Kruger is still building, but there are signs the direction he's taking the program is the right one. The most recent one came last weekend, but Kruger's sticking to the mantra of one game at time.
"They're all tough. They're all really tough," Kruger said. "We're gonna have to play really well every night out to have a chance to win, and I think our guys understand that the league is so good.
"Kansas obviously has sets the bar for the last several years, and they'll come in here and play very well on Wednesday."