If the Big 12 goes through Kansas, the Oklahoma schools might be in good shape.
A three-game losing streak for the Jayhawks has flipped the Big 12 race around, leaving the Cowboys and Sooners, who both defeated KU, as two of the biggest beneficiaries.
Three teams are tied for the Big 12 lead. Half of the conference is within a game of first place. And for the first time in a several seasons, the Oklahoma schools are in that mix. Oklahoma State is tied with Kansas and Kansas State for the Big 12 lead at 8-3 while Oklahoma is sitting at 7-4. For the first time since 2009, both schools are poised to reach the NCAA Tournament in the same season.
Behind the stellar play of guards Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, Oklahoma State has won six in a row, including a road win at Kansas. The Cowboys are a lock for the third NCAA Tournament appearance under coach Travis Ford, but their sights might be higher for a potential Big 12 title. After facing Oklahoma on Saturday, Oklahoma State will catch Kansas again in Stillwater on Wednesday.
Oklahoma is a longer shot to win the league, but the Sooners’ toughest opponent for the remainder of the regular season will be the rival Cowboys in Stillwater on Saturday. Either way, Lon Kruger’s turnaround season with the Sooners is remarkable as Oklahoma is poised for its first 20-win season and NCAA bid since Blake Griffin played in Norman in 2009.
Related: NCAA Tournament projections and bubble watch
GAME OF THE WEEK
OKLAHOMA PROBABLE STARTERS
OKLAHOMA STATE PROBABLE STARTERS
Game-defining matchup: Oklahoma’s Steven Pledger vs. Oklahoma State’s Markel Brown
Brown has been on a hot streak recently, scoring 25 against Texas Tech on Wednesday and riding an explosive first half against Kansas two weeks ago on the way to 28 points. He’s an explosive dunker, but he can step out and shoot the three-pointer, going 7 of 8 against Tech and 7 of 10 against Kansas. When he’s on, Oklahoma State’s tough to stop. Steven Pledger has had his struggles in recent weeks, but the Sooners need one of their most experienced players to be on his game on both ends of the floor against a tough Cowboys backcourt.
Players we’re watching: Oklahoma’s Cam Clark and Je’lon Hornbeak
Kruger has been tinkering with his lineups in recent weeks, putting Hornbeak and later freshman Isaiah Cousins at the point. But Kruger's hand will be forced with the energetic Bobby Hield out for four to six weeks with a broken foot. Hornbeak hit a three-pointer and a few big free throws late in the win over Kansas, but he’s a freshman. Clark is a 6-foot-6 junior guard who can contribute in a number of areas.
Stat that matters: Free throw shooting
If the game is close near the end, it will be interesting to see who wins the free throw battle. Oklahoma State (74.3 percent) and OKlahoma (73.8 percent) are the top two teams in the Big 12 from the line.
How Oklahoma can win: Let Osby and M’Baye take over
Romero Osby is one of the league’s most improved players, making a run at conference player of the year honors. In his second go-round against Kansas’ Jeff Withey, Osby owned the matchup with 17 points and eight rebounds. He and Amath M’Baye (10.5 ppg) will need to take charge against the Cowboys’ frontcourt for Oklahoma to have its best chance to win.
How Oklahoma State can win: Dominate the backcourt matchup
Freshman Marcus Smart has been every bit the transformative player Oklahoma State hoped he would be, but he’s not the only freshman standout. Phil Forte has scored in double figures in six of his last nine games. Together, Smart, Brown and Forte are averaging 50.3 points per game during the Cowboys’ six-game win streak. With an undermanned and young Oklahoma backcourt, the Cowboys will look to the guards to take over the game.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 72, Oklahoma 67
WEEKEND ON TAP
All times Eastern
Georgetown at Cincinnati (Friday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
The Hoyas’ NCAA credentials have improved greatly since mid-January as Georgetown has won six in a row. In terms of field goals, Georgetown is the most efficient team in the Big East on both ends of the floor: The Hoyas lead the Big East in field goal percentage (45.6 percent) and field goal defense (38.1 percent) in conference games. After a two-game skid, Cincinnati got a much needed win over Villanova on Tuesday.
Virginia at North Carolina (Saturday, noon, ACC syndication)
Where did Virginia’s offense come from? The Cavaliers scored 78 on Clemson, 80 on Maryland and 73 on Virginia Tech in the last three games. North Carolina had a win at Duke within its sights before poor free throw shooting sunk the Tar Heels. How short on good wins is North Carolina? The Heels’ best victories are over UNLV, Florida State, Maryland and Long Beach State.
Pittsburgh at Marquette (Saturday, 1 p.m., CBS)
This is a key game in what is turning out to be a wild race in the Big East. With Syracuse’s loss to Connecticut on Wednesday, Marquette is in a three-way tie for first in the league with the Orange and Georgetown. Pittsburgh has been one of the hottest teams in the nation over the last month. The Panthers have lost only once — by three points at Louisville — since their 74–67 defeat, in OT, at Marquette on Jan. 12.
Missouri at Arkansas (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN2)
Mike Anderson, who won 111 games in five seasons as the head coach at Missouri, takes on his former school for the first time since making the move to Arkansas. The Razorbacks have been brutal on the road but nearly unbeatable at home. Arkansas seems to be the safe pick here, but Mizzou is capable of beating any team in the nation when it shoots well from the 3-point line.
Colorado State at Air Force (Saturday, 4 p.m., Altitude)
After a two-game swoon, Air Force is back in NCAA Tournament conversation after drilling UNLV 71-56. Colorado State is in even better shape with a chance to win the Mountain West title after a late burst from Dorian Green gave the Rams a 66-60 win over San Diego State on Wednesday. Colorado State leads the nation in rebound rate despite having only one player taller than 6-foot-6.
Baylor at Kansas State (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPNU)
It’s pretty clear where Baylor stands in the Big 12 with a 1-4 record against Tournament contenders Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and a 6-0 record against Texas, Texas Tech, TCU and West Virginia. Kansas State’s Rodney McGruder is averaging 20 points per game over his last three.
Ohio State at Wisconsin (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS)
Thursday's OT loss to Minnesota notwithstanding, Wisconsin has mastered the art of the narrow victory. Each of the Badgers’ last five wins has come by six points or less, including two in overtime. Ohio State used a win over Northwestern to recover from a tough week, with losses to two of the top-five teams in the nation (Michigan and Indiana). The Buckeyes’ last two road losses — at Michigan and at Michigan State — have come by a total of five points. This team has the mental toughness to win at the Kohl Center in Madison.
Minnesota at Iowa (Sunday, 2 p.m., Big Ten Network)
This is a pivotal game for both teams. Minnesota, which opened the season with 15 wins in its first 16 games. The Golden Gophers have lost six of their last nine, none more damaging than last Sunday’s home game against Illinois. After defeating Wisconsin in overtime Thursday, Minnesota could string together some good wins with another victory in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes improved to 5–7 in the Big Ten with wins over Northwestern and Penn State. With a soft schedule down the stretch — by Big Ten standards — Iowa will have an opportunity to play its way into the NCAA Tournament.
Athlon Sports managing editor Mitch Light contributed to this report.