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March 18, 2014

OU feels Big 12 has prepared them for NCAA gauntlet

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No one knew how strong the Big 12 could really be last November. There was always the thought Kansas would continue to rule the league, as Poseidon rules the ocean, as Constantine I ruled the Roman Empire, as Jay-Z rules the rap game.

But no one could've predicted the two-month bloodbath to come. The league began to cannibalize itself when Oklahoma walked into Frank Erwin Center and ended an eight-game losing streak to Texas on UT's home floor.

Then there was OU's defeat of a top 10 Iowa State squad. In February, the same Texas team that had been beat by the Sooners took one back against Kansas. Three games later, the Jayhawks dropped another to in-state rival Kansas State.

A previously top 5-ranked Oklahoma State squad dropped seven straight to Big 12 opponents before reeling off four straight wins.

Two of those victories came against Kansas and Kansas State. Texas Tech, which finished second to last in the league, played KU to a one-point ballgame.

The coup de grace came in the final week of Big 12 regular season competition when KU traveled to Morgantown, W. Va. The Jayhawks, the conference regular season champs, were beaten 92-86 in game where freshman Andrew Wiggins dropped 40.

"The depth this year was outstanding, and the teams are great," said OU coach Lon Kruger who's Sooners finished second in the Big 12 regular season.

Only Texas Christian didn't pull its weight in the league this year. Parity is one way of describing the Big 12. Nine-headed monster is more realistic.

"It's been a great league," Kruger said. "It's been 18 times you line up. You know if you don't play well you're going to get beat because we're playing against good people and good players."

The Big 12 will have seven teams playing in the NCAA tournament this year -- the most of any conference in the country. 2014 is just the fifth time in NCAA history that 70 percent of one conference will be represented on the big dance card.

"I think the whole Big 12 did a great job of scheduling us," said Baylor coach Scott Drew. "We all benefited with 70 percent of the league making in the NCAAs and 80 percent [of the Big12] will play in the postseason."

It's the first a mark of 70 percent or better has been posted by a conference since 1993.

"I think there's a wide variety of teams in the Big 12," said senior Tyler Neal. "You've got your big teams. You've got KU and Texas. You got other teams that can spread you out like Iowa State. I think we were tested well."

Heading into their game against North Dakota State Thursday in Spokane, Wash., the Sooners can't help but feel they're one of the best prepared teams in the country thanks to an unmerciful league schedule.

"I think we enjoy playing great teams like that, but I think it also got us ready for every team in the country," said sophomore Ryan Spangler of Big 12 opponents. "We've faced little lineups. We've faced big lineups. I think it's got us ready to guard those big lineups."

Cameron Clark has had to help Spangler in the low post against those bigger lineups, against those teams that have tall men, large men, who can do damage to the Sooners in the paint.

Clark got his first taste of that last season when he had to step in and play the power forward role -- the role Spangler plays today -- when other Sooners got into the foul trouble. But last year he wasn't playing his best basketball like he is as a senior this year.

And this year, unlike last's, he's had nine teams to help him sharpen his skills.

"It's a whole other chapter," Clark said.

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