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February 14, 2014

OU needs to play inside and out in Stillwater

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Oklahoma had just been handed its seventh defeat of the season when Sooner coach Lon Kruger began fielding questions about just what went wrong against Texas Tech last Wednesday.

The Sooners had been soundly beaten in all aspects of the game on a night where they admittedly weren't prepared for likes of Red Raider team that has played better than its 13-11 record this season.

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Kruger gave credit to Tech coach Tubby Smith and his team for effectively slowing down the pace of the game and forcing the Sooners make every possession count. In the midst of answering a question related to OU's overreliance on its 3-point shooting against Tech, Kruger offered a truism in conference play this season.

"When you line up in the Big 12, it's going to be tough," he said. "We need to make shots to be at our best."

"Hate to call it a wakeup call, but it definitely helped us refocus as a team," said freshman point guard Jordan Woodard. "We have to bunker down and get back to what we're best at doing, and that's defending and getting out running."

Top to bottom, the league is the strongest it has ever been as 10-team league and maybe stronger than when it was still 12 teams. If the Big 12 tournament began Saturday the No. 8 would be Oklahoma State, and the No. 9 seed would be Baylor.

Those two teams were once ranked among the top 10 teams in the country, and they are bringing up the rear with just a third of the conference slate left to play with NBA-ready players.

Every team in the conference boasts at least one player who could go off on any afternoon, any night. Texas Christian is the only winless team in the conference play, but even in the Horned Frogs 91-58 loss to Baylor last Wednesday Kyan Anderson dropped 29 points on 10-of-17 shooting.

The rest of the country has come to recognize not only how tough it is to play in the Big 12 but the caliber of players who play in it.

Last Thursday 30 ballplayers were named to the Naismith Trophy midseason list. The award recognizes the best college basketball player in the country, and five of the players on the list play Big 12 basketball -- the most of any conference in the nation.

Those players were Iowa State's Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane, Kansas' Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart. The Pokes will be without their star point guard when they play the Sooners at 1 this afternoon at Gallagher-Iba Arena.

Woodard has played enough Big 12 basketball to know he should expect a hungry and eager OSU team with a raucous crowd regardless of the Pokes' five-game losing streak.

"It'll be a huge Bedlam crowd," he said. "I'm sure they're going to come out, so we gotta just play our game."

A huge part of OU's game is Woodard. Many of his points come from his ability to get to the free throw line.

Still during the Sooners' last two outings he's scored a combined 11 points. While he's continued to demonstrate an ability to get to the charity stripe, he's converted just four of his last 14 attempts. He's hit zero of his last 3-point attempts.

Neal came off the bench to hit 1-of-4 from 3-point range against Tech, but he acknowledged OU didn't give its post players enough opportunities to score against the Red Raiders at the beginning of offensive possessions.

Though the Cowboys will be smaller team than the Red Raiders, Neal knows there's a great need for the Sooners to establish sophomore Ryan Spangler in the paint early. Spangler took just three shots against Tech.

"I think if we're playing through him he's not a black hole," Neal said. "If he gets doubled, he's going to make the right play and get an open 3 or an open shot on the other side [for a teammate]."

After all, the teams at the top of this league are the squads who have demonstrated they can play through their post players and finish at the rim.



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