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February 1, 2013

Oklahoma hopes to beat February

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It's the first day of February, a month used to separate the Big 12's elite from its mediocre, a month that has not been kind to Oklahoma's men's basketball team in the past. The Sooners have to beat the month of February to have any chance of keeping its hopes of an NCAA tournament bid alive.

The Sooners haven't reached the upper echelon of the league's best since 2009, and that's largely because they haven't fared well during Black History Month. In fact, OU owns a record of 3-21 in the month of February over the last three years. OU plays eight of its 18 Big 12 games this month.

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Still, senior forward Andrew Fitzgerald believes the culture that led to those bad displays over the last three Februarys isn't the one he's playing in this season.

"We're more deep than we were the last three years, so I think we're really built more, disciplined more, to get over this hump in February to March," he said.

Oklahoma has won five Big 12 games so far this season, matching its total from last season. This is also the first time in three years the Sooners have won two league road games in the same season.

One of those was a decisive victory against a bad West Virginia team to begin conference play. The other came last Wednesday against a Baylor Bears team that has been up (beat then-No. 8 Kentucky on the road) and down (lost to College of Charleston at home).

Prior to their game against Baylor, CBSSports.com predicted the Sooners to be a No. 9 seed and bubble team, while ESPN.com predicted Oklahoma to be a No. 10 seed and fading. But neither of OU's conference road wins are what a 2013 NCAA tournament selection committee might see as signature victories.

The Sooners (14-5, 5-2 Big 12) have had a couple opportunities to gain a signature win against No. 2 Kansas and No. 18 Kansas State. They'll receive just one more guaranteed chance to earn a win against each of those foes this month.

The first comes at 5 p.m. Saturday when the Wildcats (16-4, 5-2 Big 12) venture south to Lloyd Noble Center. More than that though, the Sooners are tied with Kansas State and Baylor for second place in the league. Mr. Momentum has returned to the Sooners' bench, and now isn't the time to shoo him away.

"The Big 12 is all about protecting your house and being able to get a couple road wins, and I think that's what we've done so far," Amath M'Baye said. "We just gotta stay the course. Not thinking too much about the big picture yet.

Against Baylor, the Sooners let a 16-point lead dwindle to just one point and were outscored 45-36 in the second half. Against Kansas State, the Sooners might not be so lucky should they become careless with the basketball and invite the Wildcats to mount large scoring runs.

Kansas State men's basketball coach Bruce Weber's team is much more disciplined at both ends of the floor than Baylor and prides itself on outhustling its opponent, crashing the boards and playing the kind of defense that would bring a tear to a basketball purist's eye. The Wildcats lead the league in scoring defense, giving up just 58.2 points per game and rebounding defense, allowing opponents just 32.3 boards per game.

Their also a team after OU men's basketball coach Lon Kruger's own heart leading the league in turnover margin (+2.80) and assists-to-turnover ratio (1.36). They don't turn the rock over much, and they share the basketball better than any team in the Big 12.

"Kansas State is very good," Kruger said. "They're very good. Bruce has done a terrific job, and they really work hard defensively and they make it tough on you."

The focus for Oklahoma in the return leg of this series will have to be on ball security and valuing possessions. In the Wildcats' 69-60 win against OU last month, they scored 26 points off turnovers while committing just eight to OU's 16.

Putting the shackles on Wildcat guard Rodney McGruder wouldn't hurt either. He's averaged 14.9 points per game this season and lit OU up for 20 points on 6-of-12 shooting.

"Offensively McGruder and (Will) Spradling and (Shane) Southwell, a lot of guys that can step up and make shots," Kruger said.

This game could be the magic game Sooner fans are looking for to prove OU is well and truly back in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid, the game they'll point to as the moment they knew things had changed for the better. Or it could just be the first game of another horrendous February for the Sooners.




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