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Sooners still not quite sure of themselves in big-game settings

It was difficult to watch Oklahoma's disappointing performance Saturday against Kansas State, but games like this are necessary evils on the learning journey to getting better.

Oklahoma came up just short of Kansas State on the scoreboard on Saturday, but the Sooners were a long ways from playing the quality of basketball they're capable of and have shown throughout this season.

If you had turned on the TV right around 6:45 p.m. CT on Saturday evening to catch a glimpse of the end of this game or just check on the score, you would have thought that it was a hard-fought, close game and anybody's to win. If anything, it was a game of dueling defenses, because the offenses certainly weren't anything to speak of with both teams shooting under 40 percent for the game and well under their team scoring averages for the season.

Oklahoma led for only a brief time in this game, at 4-2 two minutes into the contest. Other than that, the Sooners were never really in it. Kansas State blanketed the Sooners on the offensive end of the floor, making coach Lon Kruger's team scratch and claw for virtually every scoring opportunity. Fortunately for OU, Kansas State was not responding well to the Sooners' defensive effort, either, or this game might have turned into a rout.

Oklahoma is not a great shooting team in the first place (sixth in the Big 12), despite its 52 percent performance at Baylor a week ago. We've watched the OU men's team go into prolonged scoring droughts frequently in the past, but nothing like what happened in Saturday's game. Senior forward Romero Osby hit a jumper with 6:27 remaining in the first half to bring Oklahoma within one point of the Wildcats at 24-23, but the Sooners would not score again for the rest of the half and continued their scoring drought over four minutes into the second half, when Osby connected again for only OU's fourth point in a span of over 10 and a half minutes.

The miracle was that the Sooners were only trailing by five points, 30-25, after going over 10 minutes without a single point.

Kruger acknowledged after the contest that it was a very physical game and that the Sooners had great difficulty getting any kind of separation to get a good look at the basket. "Kansas State (Kruger's alma mater and a team he coached earlier in his head-coaching career) did a good job. I thought they were into it and dictated for most of the night with their defense," he said.

K-State was into it, all right, and although the game stats tell a slightly different story, coach Bruce Weber's team appeared to have this game in control from start to finish, despite the fact that OU had a chance to win it in the closing seconds. Although a win is a win, as they say, and the Sooners certainly would have taken a victory had they been so lucky, but they clearly did not deserve it.

It was a disappointing loss, for sure, especially coming at Lloyd Noble Center, where OU typically plays much better - Stephen F. Austin notwithstanding. This game ended up being for outright possession of second place in the conference behind Kansas. You would think that incentive alone, with the added benefit of playing at home, would have created more fire under the Sooners. Kansas State clearly came to play, despite narrowly escaping with a huge two-point road win, and wanted this game more than the Oklahoma players did.

The 50 points scored by Oklahoma was its lowest point total in 16 games and the second fewest all season (the Sooners tallied just 49 points against Gonzaga).

The Wildcats gained a measure of redemption, winning both contests against OU this season after being swept by a worse Sooner team that won but five conference games a year ago, two of those against K-State.

You can blame worse than poor shooting for this Oklahoma loss, but the sad truth is that other than in rebounding, where the Sooners held a 38-34 advantage on the boards, including 10 offensive rebounds, the wheels came off in other critical offensive areas as well. No Oklahoma player had more assists than turnovers (the Sooners turned the ball over a total of 14 times to 10 for Kansas State), and OU only had eight assists for the entire game. The Sooner starters shot 10 for 34 for the game (under 30 percent) and were 0 for 9 from the three-point line.

Kruger has this team playing OU's best basketball in four seasons, but they're not yet ready for prime time. They haven't shown they can come up big in big games, and until they do, you can call them a good team, but they've still got some ground to travel to be considered a great or even a very good team. Saturday's game was another step in the learning curve that Kruger knows the Sooners must go through on the way to becoming the kind of team they want and know they are capable of.

"We've got a long way to go," Kruger said after Saturday's game. "Nothing wrong with that. Today's a reminder that we've got a significant ways to go."

This was a game the Sooners and their fans felt good they could get, but the K-State loss is not fatal and it's far from final. OU's season goals in basketball are still largely intact. Unless Kruger's bunch gets caught looking back instead of what is straight ahead, a finish in the top echelon of the conference is still a good possibility, as is a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four seasons.

Oklahoma has another huge game Monday night at Iowa State. A Sooner road win at Hilton Coliseum would go a long ways toward erasing the angry feelings and frustration after the debacle Saturday night against Kansas State. One game at a time, right?

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