Sooners struggling to regain winning form in swing through Big 12 upper crust

USA TODAY Sports

Who would have ever imagined that Oklahoma and Kansas would both be carrying two-game losing streaks into their Big 12 rematch Saturday in Norman?

Everyone suspected that Oklahoma would struggle some in a six-game stretch of the 2012-13 conference basketball schedule that began with a trip to Kansas State in late January and will end at home this Saturday in a second-game in two weeks against seven-time defending Big 12 champion Kansas.

Sorry to report that their concerns unfortunately have been confirmed. That's clearly the bad news, but the good news is that head coach Lon Kruger's team is about to get the worst part of the schedule behind them. After a tough stretch in which the Sooners have done little more than spin their wheels, there is still a lot of optimisim that they can regain their traction and get the bus back on the road to what can still be a solid winning season. Something that hasn't been seen in Norman since Blake Griffin left after the 2008-09 season.

Since the Sooners and Kansas last played, in Lawrence on Jan. 26, a 67-54 Jayhawk victory to run their league-leading record to 6-0 and inch closer to the top national ranking, which they achieved a week later in one of the weekly polls (USA Today), Kansas has hit the skids. They barely managed to get out of Morgantown, W.V., with a win over a not-so-good West Virginia team. Then the wheels really came off for the Jayhawks.

The seemingly unbeatable Jayhawks fought back from a 16-point first-half deficit to take the lead at home against on Oklahoma State team that hadn't won a game at KU since the late 1980s, but couldn't hold on at the end at lost at Allen Fieldhouse for only the second time in 103 games and only the seventh time in coach Bill Self's 10-year reign at Kansas. And that's not the worst of it.

On Tuesday night in Ft. Worth, against a TCU team that was winless (0-8) in the Big 12, Kansas played what has to go down as its worst game ever under Self and perhaps one of the worst performances in the history of the Jayhawks' storied college basketball program. Kansas made just three of 22 shots in scoring only 13 first-half points. KU shot under 30 percent for the game and went down to defeat, 62-55, for the second straight game, the first time that has happened in nearly nine seasons.

Why point all this out? Because the Jayhawks' next opponent is the Sooners on Saturday at Lloyd Noble Center. Oklahoma's last victory over Kansas in Norman was in 2005. Since then, the Jayhawks have won the last four games played between the two teams at LNC and are 47-40 all-time against the Sooners in Norman.

Both teams have lost their last two games, and like Kansas, Oklahoma suffered its worst loss of the season this week, an 83-64 embarrassment on the road at Iowa State.

That sets up Saturday's game with the seven-time defending Big 12-champion Jayhawks as either the best of times or the worst of time for the Sooners.

It's not a very reassuring thought to think of an angry Kansas team that will be coming to town and want to take out its frustration on an Oklahoma team that is currently going through its own struggles. On the other hand, you've got to think that the Sooners are due for a breakout game after two consecutive extraordinarily poor shooting performances at home against Kansas State and on Monday at Iowa State. And what a momentum swing that would create if the Sooners could be the third straight team to take it to perennial conference kingpin Kansas.

Here is something else to cause you to pause: The last time Kansas lost three baskeball games in a row in the same season was 2005 - the same year, incidentally, that OU last beat the Jayhawks in Norman. And the Sooners were the last team to hang a third consecutive loss on the Jayhawks. Before traveling to Norman that year, Kansas had suffered back-to-back losses to Texas Tech and Iowa State.

So the outlook for Saturday's Big 12 game with Kansas is suddenly not as gloomy as it once appeared. One thing is certain on Saturday: One of these two teams is going to break out of its losing slump. And if the Sooners are able to withstand the Kansas tornado certain to come their way from Kansas on Saturday afternoon, the threatening skies will begin to clear a bit over the second half of the conference schedule.

After Kansas, Oklahoma has home games with TCU, Baylor, Iowa State and West Virginia. Sandwiched in between are road games at Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Texas and TCU. At least six of those eight contests are very winnable.

But looking at it even more conservatively, say the Sooners were to lose to Kansas and split their remaining eight games, they would finish with a 9-9 mark in the Big 12 and 18-12 in the regular season. That is a five-game improvement in the win column over the year before. OU men's basketball is definitely on the upswing.

Here are some telling stats (conference games only) that underscore the OU turnaround story this season: In scoring defense, the Sooners have moved up from last in the conference to seventh and as a team they are 10 points better this season that last in scoring margin (from minus three to plus seven). OU has moved from ninth in the league last season in field-goal defense to fourth in the conference this year.

Perhaps it's not that surprising that Oklahoma's upward movement in the won-lost column closely parallels the Sooners' rise this season in other statistical categories.

Credit Lon Kruger. Now in his 27th season as a college head coach, Kruger is doing exactly what he has done so successfully at four other schools in the past and what he was brought to Norman to do. And it's still a work in progress.

For more news and information and statistical updates on Oklahoma Sooner basketball and all of the Sooner sports, be sure to visit SoonerSports.com

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