NORMAN — Anything that happens late in the regular season — good or bad — is magnified. Wins strengthen teams’ NCAA Tournament status. Any losses weaken the case for a high seed, putting a team on the bubble or worse.
Oklahoma (18-9, 9-6 Big 12) and Iowa State (19-9, 9-6) meet at 12:30 p.m. today at Lloyd Noble Center. The game will be a clear case of how intense the late-season scrutiny is.
Both are tied for fourth in the Big 12. Both are coming off emotional overtime losses. The Sooners blew a 22-point lead with a little less than eight minutes to go against Texas on Wednesday. Two referees were reprimanded after the Cyclones overtime loss to Kansas on Monday, but the loss is still in the record book.
“It’s ironic how it’s all played out this way for a big game on Saturday,” OU forward Romero Osby said. “It plays out that we’re both competing for that fourth spot in the league.”
The fourth spot in the conference standings is critical because it makes a team a mortal lock for the NCAA Tournament. No fourth-place team in the Big 12 has ever been omitted from the field.
The Sooners must get this one over the Cyclones in order to get the spot all by themselves. Today’s game is also the Sooners’ last chance in the regular season to get a win over a team with a decent RPI. The Cyclones are currently No. 54.
Above all else, the Sooners need to erase the memory of Wednesday’s loss to the Longhorns and avenge one of their worst performances of the season. OU’s Feb. 4 game at Iowa State might have been the worst — overall — game of the league slate. The Sooners trailed by double-digits 10 minutes in and never came close to rallying. The 83-64 loss is OU’s most lopsided through 15 conference games.
“It was the one occasion on the year where we didn’t bounce back and play with the energy and enthusiasm we have, typically,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “Iowa State took advantage of that.”
OU was in a similar emotional state when the first meeting occurred. It had just lost a heartbreaker to Kansas State two days earlier.
OU broke out of the slump after it left Ames, beating Kansas at home five days later. It was the first of four wins in the last six games.
“The last time we played them it wasn’t really much of a game,” OU forward Amath M’Baye said. “We have something to prove because of the way we played at their place and the way we played (Wednesday) night.”
Some of that will go away with a winning performance today. The Sooners have all the motivation they could need. Their spot in the NCAA Tournament and slot in the Big 12 Conference standings can both be elevated with a victory. Add in that seniors Casey Aren’t, Andrew Fitzgerald, Sam Grooms, Steven Pledger and Osby will be honored in a pregame ceremony as part of senior day festivities, and it’s easy to call today’s game OU’s biggest of the season.
But it’s also March, and just flipping the calendar to this month means every game is elevated.
“It’s the nature of the last couple weeks of conference play,” Kruger said.
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