OU the biggest surprise of Big 12
It’s not exactly the midway point in the Big 12 conference season, but a week off does give us time to really examine what has happened with Oklahoma so far.
The Sooners are definitely up there as one of the biggest surprises in college basketball. Lon Kruger’s group enters Saturday’s game at No. 14 West Virginia at 12-5 overall, 7-4 in Big 12 play. Third in the conference and No. 12 in the AP poll, a week removed from a season-high No. 9 ranking.
The key will be for OU to continue to build off January’s success and the nearly unprecedented run of beating three top-10 teams in a row (vs. Kansas, at Texas, vs. Alabama).
In recent years, the Sooners have had issues in the month of February and this month does not allow for a letdown of any kind.
Let’s dive into it.
Points: Austin Reaves 15.8; De’Vion Harmon 12.5; Brady Manek 10.9
Rebounds: Austin Reaves 5.3; Brady Manek 4.9; (tie) Elijah Harkless, Kur Kuath 4.8
Assists: Austin Reaves 5.3; De’Vion Harmon 2.1; Elijah Harkless 1.8
Biggest win: vs. Alabama, 66-61. No, we’re not talking about football. And although the Sooners have had four top-10 wins, it’s the one against the Crimson Tide in the Big 12/SEC Challenge that resonates the most right now. To win that game without Austin Reaves and Alondes Williams because of COVID-19/contact tracing protocol was one heck of an effort. Bama could end up being the best team in the SEC, and in a season that is lacking huge non-conference opportunities, that’s a win that can see OU moving up that NCAA tournament seeding line.
Biggest surprise: Elijah Harkless. Uh, duh. There is no other answer here. The Harkless story is pretty well known at this point, but it still bears repeating. Here’s a guy who knew full well he was coming to OU to redshirt this season. No questions asked, no issues with the plan. After the first four games, then the NCAA made all transfers eligible and Harkless has gotten better and better with each game. He’s had a knack for making huge plays in big-time moments like his fallaway jumper vs. Bama or scoring nine of OU’s last 11 points vs. Iowa State last Saturday. His hustle, effort has become infectious to everybody.
Worst loss: None. That’s another feather in OU’s cap right now when you start examining resumes. OU does not have a bad loss this season. For the sake of argument, though, we’ll say the 69-67 loss at home vs. Texas Tech stings a bit. Reaves had a point-blank put-back to send the game into overtime but couldn’t get it to fall. Just as big as earning crucial victories is keeping this column blank. Zero bad losses can mean just as much to the committee. There’s going to be a stretch of three consecutive road games this month for OU that will really test the Sooners’ mettle.
Who to watch: Brady Manek. Or should we say Brady Manek 2.0? Because he’s a much different player since returning from COVID-19. For a couple of games, that was a nice way of saying he wasn’t playing well and looked out of sorts. But now? It’s because he actually is a different player. He’s not being asked to score 20-25 points per game. He’s working hard on the boards and being a defensive presence and picking his spots on offense. It’s rare for a senior to need to adjust his role mid-season, but he’s doing it. The four-game lineup is still clicking, and Manek at center is proving to be very effective.
Honorable mention to De’Vion Harmon because he has been a big-time stabilizing force. Whatever role he is being asked to play as COVID-19 has had him moving to about four positions, he has done it to the best of his ability. Harmon has been the key to many fast starts for OU.
What’s ahead: All home games are going to be huge battles (Texas, Oklahoma State), and a road stretch of at Iowa State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State in six days is not going to be easy. There’s also a postponed home matchup vs. Baylor lurking out there, potentially, if the Bears can find a way to make that one up. If OU is able to go 4-3 the rest of the way and end at 16-8 overall, 11-7 in conference, job well done. The Sooners have played themselves into a No. 3 or No. 4 seed as of now for the NCAA tournament and would be unlikely to drop too much, or at all, as long as they can get at least two wins out of the five ranked games left (at WVU, OSU (2x), Texas, Baylor). Defense has been the team’s calling card, and it’ll be interesting to watch to see if OU’s four-guard lineup can withstand this stretch run without wearing down.
Up next: at No. 14 West Virginia at noon Saturday (ESPN+).