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February 19, 2014

OU hoops recovering for a stretch run

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Just minutes after Oklahoma survived to defeat Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Sooners coach Lon Kruger settled in the hallway outside the media workroom at Gallagher-Iba Arena. He knew how much the Sooners needed that win.

Earlier in the week, they'd laid an egg against Tubby Smith's Red Raiders. They'd lost three of their last four before their game against the Pokes.

A win against a Marcus Smart-less OSU team would go a long way during a week of preparation before the Sooners begin a four-game swing that will decide their seeding in the NCAA tournament.

"It was a huge game, huge game," Kruger said. "To get it in the right column makes a big difference. Every time you have one at this point in the season in the right column, it's huge. And a road time at this time of year is even more."

OU is just a game above .500 on the road in conference play. Only OU and Kansas have winning records away from home in the league.

The Sooners also are 11-3 at home. So it's quite a boon for the Sooners that they get to play three of the top five teams in conference at Lloyd Noble, and it's quite a bit more that they'll get them after these days of recovery. The Sooners haven't had this long of a break between games since late December.

It's a bit of a contrast this year from where the Sooners were last year. Last year in the middle of February, OU was trying to find its way into the big dance.

This season Kruger won't be satisfied until Oklahoma's name is called on Selection Sunday.

"Like I told our guys, it's not something we talk about or read about," he said. "But the teams that make the most progress between now and three weeks from now are the one's who are going to position themselves best for an NCAA opportunity."

With that in mind, Kruger and his staff have to balance using this week to heal while also using it to improve the team's shortcomings.

"Freshness is as important as anything this time of year," Kruger said. "Fresh legs are way up on our priority list. But at the same time you've got to practice. You've got to get better."

If nothing else, Oklahoma can use this time to regroup and sync up.

Two weeks ago, the Sooners were ranked No. 21 in the Associated Press poll. Last Monday, they received just seven votes in the same poll. OU hasn't had the benefit of all their impact players playing at the top of their game on the same night since then either.

Even in OU's demolition of Baylor -- the Sooners' most decisive victory since dropping OSU at Lloyd Noble last month -- sophomore forward Ryan Spangler went scoreless in 33 minutes on the floor.

Senior Cameron Clark has proved streaky since Big 12 competition began. He's capable of dropping 32 on a top 10 Kansas team or being held to just five points against a floundering OSU team.

It's imperative the Sooners figure out not just how to get Clark involved but be sure sophomore Buddy Hield gets open shots on the perimeter and Spangler gets plenty of work inside. Freshman point guard Jordan Woodard is certainly able to be the catalyst for all of those things, and he has to be.

The Sooners are a finesse team built on speed at both ends. Tall physical squads like the next three they'll face -- Kansas State, Kansas and Texas -- give the Sooners problems.

"We've just got to be tough," Spangler said. "We're not going to make it far if we don't get tough, I don't think anyways. Some of the games we've played this year, people have out-toughed us, and we've lost. So we gotta get tougher."

Against those KU, KSU and Texas, OU's record this season is 1-3. Now is a great time for the Sooners to lay the groundwork to remedy that.

Three days after pulling out the win against the Pokes, Kruger stood on the sideline of the men's basketball gym at Lloyd Noble and said he's trying to do just that.

"We've got a lot of room to improve," he said. "I think this group knows that."



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