SI.com’s Mark Button breaks down this week’s big game.
No. 6 Kansas (20-5) at No. 5 Oklahoma (18-4)
Sunday, Feb. 23, 4 p.m. EST (CBS)
Lloyd Noble Center (11,800)
First place in the Big 12 standings is on the line Sunday, when one half of last season’s NCAA Final Four meet for their only regular-season game this year. Kansas holds a one-game lead on Oklahoma (and Texas) after dispatching Colorado on Wednesday to move to 10-1 in the conference. Oklahoma, meanwhile, defeated Oklahoma State to split the “Bedlam Series” and improve to 9-2 in Big 12 play. Both ranked in the top six, the Jayhawks and Sooners are competing for more than a conference championship. One of these two (if not both) probably will earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, which means the other may get shipped away from the Midwest to play in the East, South or West Region.
Hollis Price Elsa/Getty Images
There aren’t many backcourts in the nation better than Kansas’ and Oklahoma’s. Sooners senior Hollis Price (19.3 ppg.) is as gutsy and clutch as any player in the nation, and his 2.1-to-1 assist-to-turnover margin is solid but pales compared to longtime backcourt cohort Quannas White’s 3.2-to-1. Add in the capable yet inconsistent Ebi Ere (14.7 ppg., but held to single-digit scoring in two of OU's past three games) and the Sooners have a three-headed backcourt monster that puts up big points without getting sloppy with the basketball. Kansas counters with point guard Aaron Miles (9.1 ppg, 7.2 apg), Kirk Hinrich (17.8 ppg, 43.5 percent 3-pointers) and Keith Langford (15.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg). Langford’s production has dropped off a bit -- 6.5 ppg in Kansas’ past two games -- but Miles and Hinrich are near the top of their games. While the nation will tune in to see Price and Hinrich go head-to-head, the Ere-Langford matchup is the one that could decide the game. Though they score in different ways, both are as capable of scoring just five points as they are 25.
Nick Collison AP
If Kansas sophomore Wayne Simien can play effectively, the Jayhawks should have an advantage in the frontcourt. Simien, however, is questionable because of soreness in his right shoulder -- the same shoulder he dislocated Jan. 4, causing him to miss 11 games. Simien said he’ll be ready to play, but Kansas coach Roy Williams is not so sure. The Jayhawks went 8-1 to start Big 12 play without Simien, thanks in large part to the play of All-America candidate Nick Collison (18.9 ppg., 8.9 rpg.). Junior Jeff Graves has helped fill in for Simien, averaging 5.2 points and 5.8 rebounds in his first year with Kansas, though Graves' focus has waned of late. Oklahoma freshman Kevin Bookout, the probable Big 12 freshman of the year, leads the conference in field goal percentage at .588 (.609 in league play) and has emerged as one of the league’s top big men. Sophomore Johnnie Gilbert has joined the Sooners’ starting lineup in the past two games as Sampson has relegated junior center Jabahri Brown to the bench. Foul trouble should play a role in the game, and both Brown and Collison are prone to collecting cheap personal fouls. Frontcourt depth will be a key on both sides if the officials prove whistle-happy, thus stressing Kansas’ need for a healthy, effective Simien.
As Jayhawk fans did in Lawrence, Kan., for their only regular-season meeting last year, expect the Sooner faithful at Lloyd Noble to play a key factor in the game. The Sooners will put the nation’s longest active home winning streak (35 games) on the line against the last team to beat the Sooners in Norman -- Kansas hasn’t lost at Lloyd Noble in seven years. Kelvin Sampson preaches defense first, and his players listen. The Sooners like to turn games ugly -- almost scrum-like -- then rely on effective free-throwing shooting (72 percent as a team) to salt away victories. Oklahoma holds its opponents to 59.6 points a game, defending the perimeter with tremendous success. The Sooners have limited Big 12 opponents to 28.4 percent 3-point shooting, best in the league. Kansas favors a more up-tempo style, averaging 84.8 points a game (third-best in the nation) to OU’s 72.7. With Simien in the lineup, the Jayhawks have four players who average more than 15 points a game, but Oklahoma has a way of keeping Kansas from playing its normal game. Last year, in OU’s 64-55 victory in the Big 12 Tournament title game, the Sooners held the Jayhawks to season lows in points, field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage.
Price, the preseason Big 12 player of the year, will be challenged on both ends by Hinrich. This matchup is not only a key to victory Sunday, but also could decide who walks away with regular season player of the year hardware. Hinrich has averaged 20.1 points on 55.9-percent shooting during the Jayhawks’ past six games -- all victories. Price has been just as hot, draining 21-of-40 from 3-point range in the Sooners’ past six games. Neither player struggles to score, so which one is most successful in getting his teammates going could be decisive.
Tempo and foul trouble will go a long ways in deciding the game. If Collison can stay on the court and the game is played in the high 70s, Kansas has to like its chances. However, if the game turns to a physical, plodding style, it will favor Oklahoma -- especially if Simien sits out with the injury. We look for Simien to play, though, and for Kansas seniors Hinrich and Collison to will the Jayhawks to their fourth straight victory at Oklahoma. Expect Langford to make an offensive impact as well, as the southpaw sophomore plays his best in big games.
The pick: Kansas 81, Oklahoma 77