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March 13, 2014

Kruger enters Big 12 open with watchful eye

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Three wins in three days. That's the challenge that lies ahead for No. 17 Oklahoma if they want to claim the Big 12 tournament title.

Still, that's not the way Sooner coach Lon Kruger and his squad prefer to look at it.

They prefer to view tonight's game versus Baylor at 6 p.m. the same way they've viewed the last 31: like it's the only one that matters. And maybe that's the way they should look at the Bears.

After all, as No. 7 seeds go, Baylor is pretty darn impressive. According to kenpom.com, the Bears rank No. 13 in nation -- just three spots behind OU -- in adjusted offensive efficiency and rank No. 3 in offensive rebounding percentage.

"Always leery of the Bears," Kruger said. "They're long, athletic and won seven of eight down the stretch here. And [Kenny] Chery back healthy I think really makes their club different.

"They're long and big inside and very quick and athletic and shoot it well from the perimeter. It's a good combination and makes them tough as a basketball team."

Still, there's no downplaying what the Sooners are after at the Sprint Center. It's not just a Big 12 tourney title they're playing for but the highest possible seeding come Selection Sunday.

"It's important. We're fighting to get a seed in the tournament, and if we can make it far, even win it, we'll get a high seed," sophomore Ryan Spangler said.

So is Baylor.

Some folks have the Bears already dancing after winning seven of their last eight games following a loss. However, Scott Drew's team is doing everything in its power to pad that resume.

The Bears grab 41.2 percent of all available rebounds off their missed shots. Their 38.9 boards per game rank third in the conference. Since conference play began, no Big 12 team averages more blocked shots per game (5.5) than they do.

They are a great 3-point shooting squad. The Bears' 38.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc ranks first in the Big 12 -- just ahead of West Virginia and the Sooners. No one has made more Baylor treys than senior Brady Heslip.

Heslip leads the league in 3-point shooting percentage at 45.7 percent, and his effective shooting percentage of 64.9 percent is outstanding for a guard. Taking away Heslip's ability to shoot 3s effectively will be high on the Sooners' priority list.

Sophomore guard Isaiah Cousins will likely have a hand in that as he's become one of OU's better on-ball defenders. He ranks second on the team in steals (36) behind sophomore guard Buddy Hield (45).

"We just really want to win it, so we just gotta take every game seriously and gotta focus on one game at a time," Cousins said. "We're definitely ready for the tournament, but we just gotta prepare for this game, prepare for our opponent."

But like OU has to prepare for the Bears, the Bears must prep for OU. The Sooners boast five players capable of taking over a game and four bench players who routinely contribute.

The emergence of sophomore guard Je'lon Hornbeak as a scorer and not just a decent floor general along with Big 12 Sixth Man award winner Tyler Neal, junior D.J. Bennett and freshman Frank Booker provides the Sooners with not just the bodies but the production to compete with the best. In a loaded Big 12 Conference where almost any team can beat the other, those four men off the bench might be the difference.

"From a depth standpoint, we've played nine and all nine have played really good roles, meaningful roles, more so sometimes than others, but all have contributed," Kruger said. "So our depth is pretty good."

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