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February 8, 2013

Big 12 Hunger Games

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Sooner fans would like to think the Sooners are over it.

They'd like to think they put the 83-64 beating they took in Ames, Iowa, just five days ago behind them, but it has to sting. And more than that, the loss has raised questions.

Questions about their chances to reach the NCAA tournament. Questions about their ability to win in February. Questions about their will to win.

Freshman guard Buddy Hield knows OU has to answer those questions.

"We've gotta be tougher," Hield said. "We can't let guys come down here and score on us whenever they want to on us."

HD: Eddie Radosevich & RJ Young preview Saturday's match-up

The Sooners have a chance to address those questions at 3 p.m. Saturday in Lloyd Noble Center against No. 5 Kansas. In truth, they don't have a choice.

The final days are approaching in the Big 12 Hunger Games, and the Gamemaker has done his worst. The Jayhawks, the betting favorite among the Big 12's 10 tributes, will walk into OU's house and pick a fight.

"Every game feels like a must-win," senior forward Romero Osby said. "We've lost two games. They've lost two games. They're going to come in here fired up, and they're still the No. 5 team in the country until they change it, so they're a really good team, and we're going to have to go out here and fight."

Kansas' armor and armory have been penetrated recently, and KU men's basketball coach Bill Self takes pains to be sure no such thing happens in Norman. After all, his squad suffered what he believes might be the worst loss in Jayhawk history against Texas Christian, a team that was previously winless until earning its first ever top 5 win in school history against the Jayhawks last Wednesday night.

"It was the worst team Kansas has ever put on the floor," Self told USA Today after KU's 62-55 loss to the Horned Frogs. "Since Dr. [James] Naismith was there. I think he had some bad teams and lost to the YMCA the first couple years."

So Oklahoma (14-7, 5-4 Big 12) isn't the only team playing in the house that Lloyd built this weekend with questions to answer and trust to win back. Still, Oklahoma men's basketball coach Lon Kruger expects to see a vintage Bill Self Kansas team, and that's the team he's prepared his men to face.

"It's easier said than done to beat those people," Kruger said of Kansas. "They don't lose very many, and the fact that they've lost a couple here in a row is very unusual. But we expect Kansas to come in here and play well."

For the Sooners, the game against KU is the last of a brutal seven-game stretch -- the toughest stretch of their season -- that began with No. 13 Kansas State on Jan. 19, in Manhattan, Kan. They hoped to run the gauntlet and come out unscathed, but that has not been the case.

OU added one win against a hapless Texas team and stole another from Baylor in Waco only to be doubled up by the Wildcats, soundly thumped by Kansas and embarrassed by Iowa State. And though OU is ranked in the top 20 of the latest RPI rankings, they still lack a quality win against an AP top 25 opponent.

Each season only allows a handful of opportunities to take advantage of high stakes and high rewards. OU's return leg against Kansas (19-3, 7-2 Big 12) might be the last time the Sooners have such a chance during the regular season.

The Jayhawks will have something to prove Saturday after suffering back-to-back losses for the first time in 264 games. Of this, there is no doubt.

"I don't expect nothing different," senior point guard Sam Grooms said. "Honestly, I expect Kansas to be the same Kansas that they've always been."

They'll look to reestablish themselves as the premier men's hoops team in the Big 12 and remind the nation the last eight Big 12 regular season championship banners adorn their house, Allen Fieldhouse.

The Jayhawks will want remind the Sooners over the history of their series with each other they own them, and, as the late rapper, Tupac Shakur said, that's just the way it is. They'll most certainly ask questions of OU, but it's up to the Sooners to find answers.

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