By JOHN SHINN
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s been exactly five years since Oklahoma entered the Big 12 tournament fully understanding it had a spot in the NCAA tournament sewn up.
Yes, last season the Sooners played in the tournament, but as a No. 11 seed. They unquestionably received one of the last 10 at-large bids.
Won’t be the case on Sunday. The 17th-ranked Sooners (23-8, 12-6) are projected as a fifth seed or better for March Madness. Anything above that would be a shock.
So, how important is the Big 12 tournament for the Sooners?
“It’s hugely important,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “We’ll treat every game like it’s the most important thing.”
It’s the sentence Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby would love to hear from every team. The four-day, nine-game tournament at Sprint Center is the league’s largest event. This year, it appears to be the most wide open it has ever been.
Top-seeded Kansas, which earned the conference title by two games, will be playing without freshman center Joel Embiid and has dropped two of its last three. His absence, seemingly, brings the eighth-ranked Jayhawks back to the pack.
The pack is immense. The Sooners finished second in the league, but only six games ahead of ninth-seeded Texas Tech, which beat them at Lloyd Noble Center on Feb. 12. The Sooners will face seventh-seeded Baylor at 6 p.m. today. The Bears have won seven of their last eight games.
The team that cuts down the nets on Saturday night will have passed through a meat grinder.
Some coaches don’t want that just five days before beginning play in the NCAA tournament.
Kruger isn’t in that contingent. His players would love to climb a ladder and snip some twine Saturday.
“The Big 12 tournament is the most important thing to us because it’s next,” point guard Jordan Woodard said.
A decade ago, the Big 12 tournament was OU’s de facto home away from home. It claimed the event three straight times from 2001-03.
However, there’s no irrefutable evidence OU improved its seed by winning the conference tournament any of those years. The Sooners were a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament in 2001, but were No. 16 in the Associated Press Top 25 going into the event. They ranked No. 3 in 2002 and still received a No. 2 for March Madness. In 2003, they received a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament, but were ranked sixth, nationally, prior to the Big 12 tournament.
But that was back when Big 12 crowned its tournament champion late Sunday afternoon. The NCAA tournament selection committee lacked the time to digest the significance of a Big 12 tournament title.
That changed when the championship game moved to Saturday night in 2010.
Still, a lot of people — many of them coaches — believe when an NCAA tournament berth is in the bag, the conference tournament becomes an exhibition.
Kruger understands that rationale.
“Some might say if you lose, you’re fresher going into the NCAA tournament. We haven’t had that luxury yet. We’re still at the point where we try to compete as well as we can every time out,” he said. “I’m not saying people don’t, but we’re not thinking in those terms.”
Perhaps it’s a matter of OU needing to re-establish itself as one of the Big 12’s best programs.
Success in the conference tournament has been minimal over the last decade. OU has not reached the semifinals since 2008 and is 5-10 in the last 10 conference tournaments. That mark includes going 0-2 the last two years.
Finishing second in the league marks just the sixth time since 2003 OU entered the conference tournament as the fourth seed or better.
Winning a conference title — even the tournament — would elevate the Sooners’ stature. But so would playing a couple weekends in the NCAA tournament.
“Obviously, one team is going to win it and the other six or seven are going to prepare for the NCAA tournament. At that point, it becomes the most important,” Kruger said. “We’ll go into it like the other nine teams — trying to win the conference championship.”
OU basketball notebook
Sooners struggle from deep at Sprint Center: Oklahoma guard Frank Booker has a routine before every game, but it intensifies when he’s playing at a new venue.
He watches some video of himself making shots.
“You look at the rims and concentrate on the rims, then I see myself shooting and making it every time,” he said.
Then he gets on the floor and visualizes doing the same. He takes a couple one-handed shots near the basket, then takes some jumpers from 15 feet before moving out beyond the 3-point line.
The freshman shot 39.1 percent from 3-point range this season. It’s just the fifth highest percentage on the team, but his older teammates might want to copy the routine before the 17th-ranked Sooners face Baylor at 6 p.m. today in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament.
Getting a 3-pointer to fall at Sprint Center has been a rare occurrence over the last two years.
The Sooners are a combined 5 for 29 from beyond the 3-point arc since coach Lon Kruger led them here for the first time in 2012.
The Sooners shot 38.3 percent from 3-point range in Big 12 play this season and led the league in 3-point makes this season with 8.4 per game. They were 21 for 55 in the two regular-season meetings with the Bears, including connecting on a season-high 14 in the 88-72 win over the Bears on Feb. 8 at Lloyd Noble Center.
However, Sprint Center’s court wasn’t the only one OU used on Wednesday. It had a 40-minute shootaround at the site of the Big 12 tournament. Earlier in the day, it practiced at nearby Rockhurst University.
Stamina test: OU hasn’t played three games in three days all season. The last time it played on back-to-back days was in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York on Nov. 22 and 23. The Sooners topped Seton Hall, 86-85, and then fell to then-top-ranked Michigan State, 87-76.
“It is a challenge,” OU coach Lon Kruger said.
The Sooners have one of the deepest benches in the league. Nine players average at least 9.4 minutes a game. Only sophomore guard Buddy Hield has averaged more than 30 minutes a game this season.
Tough to win three: The Sooners will be trying to beat the Bears for the third time this season. If they can pull it off, it will be a rare feat. The last time OU beat a team three times in a season was Texas Tech in 2003.
An argument could be made the two hottest teams in the tournament will meet in the quarterfinals tonight.
“They’re very good,” Kruger said of the Bears. “They’re long and athletic inside and shoot it well from the perimeter. They have a good combination of stuff.”
No more watching: OU sophomore forward Ryan Spangler will play in the Big 12 tournament for the first time today. He was at the event last season, but couldn’t play because he was redshirting after transferring to OU from Gonzaga.
“When I was in high school, I always wanted to play here in front of all the fans,” The Tuttle native and Bridge Creek High School graduate said. “It didn’t originally work out that way, but now it has.”