NORMAN, Okla. — No one could’ve predicted Oklahoma would be in this position. In the middle of January, it was in the discussion for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The question as February draws to a close is: Will Oklahoma even reach the March Madness?
The NCAA Tournament selection committee eliminated a team’s last 10 games as an official measuring stick a few years ago. The group decided the entire resume was more important than it had done lately.
That’s a good thing for the Sooners (16-11, 6-9 Big 12). They haven’t won a game since rallying to beat Baylor 98-96 on Jan. 30. Oklahoma’s losing streak stands at six games as it prepares to face Kansas State (20-8, 9-6) at 6 p.m. ET Saturday at Lloyd Noble Center.
What Oklahoma must do to get in the NCAA Tournament
As bad as things have gone in recent weeks, the Sooners are still inside the bubble. ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi had them as a No. 10 seed on Thursday.
That means if the Sooners can pull out of the tailspin, they’ll likely rise. It’s one of the marvels of Big 12 Conference basketball. Every game is a chance for a quality victory. The benefits from a victory surpass the damage from a loss.
If the Sooners could somehow close the regular season with three straight victories, it would likely enter the NCAA Tournament as a top 25 team. The Sooners travel to Baylor on Tuesday and close the regular season with Iowa State at Lloyd Noble Center on March 2.
That would mean clearing up some issues that festered all season.
Defense is Oklahoma’s No. 1 problem
Point guard Trae Young’s shooting slump isn’t what has Oklahoma’s season on the brink. The Sooners still average 87 points a game.
The collapse is a defensive issue. Oklahoma is last in the Big 12 in points allowed (82.8 points per game), ninth in field-goal percentage defense (.448) and ninth in 3-point percentage defense (.372) and last in rebounds allowed (37.7 per game).
Oklahoma got away with lethargic defensive efforts earlier in the season. It was good enough to score its way out of most problems. The Sooners have gone cold in February. They haven’t scored more than 80 points in their last six games.
The defensive trend gets uglier by the day. Here’s the opponent shooting percentage during the losing streak.
Feb. 3 at Texas: .455
Feb. 5, West Virginia: .423
Feb. 10 at Iowa State: .462
Feb. 13 at Texas Tech: .484
Feb. 17, Texas: .545
Feb. 19 at Kansas: .609
If Kansas State connects on six of every 10 shots it takes on Saturday, the Sooners’ losing streak will reach seven games.
Is Trae Young out of gas?
The freshman guard is fourth in the Big 12 in minutes played at 35.2 a game. It’s rare for a freshman to be among the conference leaders. Then again, it’s rare for a freshman to lead the league in scoring (28.3 points per game) and assists (9.2 per game).
But Young’s shooting touch left early this month. Over the last four games, he’s shooting 29.5 percent from the field (21 for 71) and 15.6 percent from 3-point range (5 for 32). His assist-to-turnover ratio is 34-to-20.
As a point guard, Young hasn’t been bad. His uncanny knack for getting to free-throw line kept Oklahoma in some of those games. But Oklahoma cannot afford its leading shot-taker to miss that often.
Perhaps having four days off between the loss to Kansas on Monday and the game on Saturday will help. But the Sooners aren’t pulling out of a nosedive if Young continues his downward trend.
Did the Sooners peak too early?
In December and January, Oklahoma was the most entertaining team in college basketball and Young was the must-see player. In some ways, that’s still the case. Even during the swoon, the Sooners remain a major college basketball topic.
But this doesn’t seem like a case of peaking too early. Instead, it’s a case of the brutal nature of the Big 12. The losing streak began as the second half of the Big 12 schedule began. During that stretch, the Sooners lost to Texas twice, West Virginia for the second time this season and to teams it had already beaten — Texas Tech, Kansas and Iowa State — in the first meeting of the season.
When a team cloaks its entire identity in when it does offensively, February tends to be a rough month. The 2016 Final Four team went through a similar phase. The scouting reports are locked in by February. The efficient offense often comes down to Options C and D. Teams are good enough to deter Plans A and B.
Defensively, the Sooners haven’t matched that level. Offensively, baskets are tougher to find.
But Oklahoma can still pull out of it. Securing a place in the NCAA Tournament still comes down to a couple of wins. The Sooners are No. 32 in the RPI, which remains the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s most powerful metric. Anyone inside the top 40 seems like a lock for an at-large bid.
The final three regular-season games will be interesting. Kansas State, Baylor and Iowa State are all outside the RPI’s top 50. Losing to any of them means Oklahoma will fall. Add it all up and Oklahoma’s NCAA Tournament hopes have reached that make-or-break point.
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