By JOHN SHINN
The alarm bell had been going for sometime prior to Oklahoma’s loss to Louisiana Tech to close 2013. Winning cures a lot of ills, but consistently giving up wide open shots and 80-plus points is a toxic hazard.
If the Sooners didn’t fully understand it, they do now.
“Maybe we did have to lose one to learn that we actually have to play defense,” OU forward Ryan Spangler said. “We’re capable of playing good defense. We do it every day in the practice. We’ve just got to carry it over the game. I think we’ll do that.”
What the Sooners (11-2) ultimately do in March hinges on the ability to do so. The games are about to get a lot tougher, starting at 7 p.m. today when OU faces Texas (11-2) at the Erwin Center in Austin, Texas.
It’s the Big 12 Conference opener for both. One aspect of the game that typically changes in conference play is scoring points gets tougher and the teams that can win despite those dry spells shoot up the conference standing. Those that cannot plummet.
“We’ve recognize we need to guard better for quite some time,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “We’ve been the dodging the bullet and winning ball games … Going into Big 12 play you hope you learned your lessen and a loss serves a purpose.”
Despite the loss to Louisiana Tech, the Sooners have done enough to get in the NCAA tournament discussion. To stay in it, they have to stay in the top half of the conference standings.
A game like today’s is critical. The Sooners and Longhorns mirror each other in a lot of ways other than their records. Both had surprising success in the non-conference season. Texas has the better win after toppling North Carolina last month, but a tougher loss to BYU in November. They both share a common loss to Michigan State.
Some players fully understand it’s about to get tougher. OU’s Cameron Clark is a senior about to start his fourth conference campaign. Sophomore guards Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Je’lon Hornbeak, who Kruger expects to play for the first time since suffering a broken foot last month, went through it last year.
Spangler and point guard Jordan Woodard, however, are new to this. How they respond to elevated tension is critical.
“Coach Kruger has preached to us how important every game is and within the game how important every possession will be,” Woodard said. “It’s gonna be tough, but I think I’m ready for it.”
Start off with a victory, which OU hasn’t pulled off at Texas since since 2005, and the conference race seems a lot more promising.
OU has a rugged schedule to start off with. No. 16 Kansas comes to Lloyd Noble Center Wednesday and No. 13 Iowa State come to Lloyd Noble Center next Saturday
There’s a chance to make some headway against some of the conference’s best teams right off the bat. Hard to imagine the Sooners doing it without defending better.
“The time is now that Big 12 Conference play is here,” Kruger said.
The lessons of the non-conference schedule are over.