NORMAN — The 12 games Oklahoma played through the last two months were all in preparation for today.
It opens Big 12 Conference play at 3 p.m. today against West Virginia at the WVU Coliseum in Morgantown, W.V. The grueling conference grind is about to begin.
It will be a tough environment, but one OU has conditioned itself to play in.
“Yes, I think we’re in a lot better shape. Last year, we got off to a pretty good start and then we lost some key games we thought we should have won. I don’t think we really learned from that,” forward Romero Osby said. “We went on the road a lot this year and got out of our comfort zone. We have three losses to show for it, but we were able to gain some experience for the young guys. I think we’ll have a better opportunity in the Big 12 because we played some tough road games in the non-conference schedule.”
Success in the Big 12 is dependent on winning at least a couple road games. Just breaking even away from the home court is usually enough to earn an NCAA Tournament bid.
OU hasn’t come close to getting one since 2009. The reason: the woeful performance in conference road games. The Sooners have two wins in their last 25 conference road games since 2010.
OU coach Lon Kruger beefed up the non-conference schedule with the hopes of toughening his team for the long haul. The conference opener against the Mountaineers marks the eighth game away from Norman. The Sooners went 5-2 in those previous seven games — including a 77-70 victory over West Virginia — and enters conference play at No. 25 in the latest Ratings Percentage Index.
The Sooners believe they’re a better, tougher team than at any point in the previous three seasons.
“Relatively to last year, sure. We have more guys playing with more confidence right now. Obviously, we’re deeper as a group, which helps your confidence level,” Kruger said. “I think they trust each other to be able to step in and take care of responsibilities in kind of an unspoken way. Yeah, we’ve taken steps in that direction to be ready for Big 12 play.”
What has helped has been the ability to win close, low-scoring games. OU has had a penchant for digging out games in the last five minutes all season. The victory over the Mountaineers was one of several that came in that manner.
“There are gonna be games that are tight with the score in the low 60s and they are really defensive battles,” Osby said. “You have to figure out a way to scrape out a win in those games. We’ve played in games like that and won them. I think we’re better prepared for that.”
What happens today could be a precursor to the rest of the season. The Mountaineers (7-5) didn’t get off to the hot start it hoped for this season. They have a three-game winning streak heading into today’s game, and are undefeated at WVU Coliseum.
It’s the kind of game the Sooners have habitually lost since 2009. They’ve shown signs this season of how that could be different.
“There’s a knack to winning and it usually comes down to getting a rebound, getting a stop or making a key shot,” Kruger said. “It comes in a lot of different forms, but we’ve had some close ball games that we have figured out how to win and that’s a good quality to have.”
John ShinnFollow me @firstname.lastname@example.org