Yes, I know January 14 is still a little early to be talking about NCAA tournament projections. But I'm planning to start my weekly Tournament Thursday feature (it just made more sense than Tuesday, though I lost some alliteration) this week, and everything about tonight's game screams Bubble Game to me, so here we are.
The Big 12 appears to be loaded enough and had enough nonconference success to send five and quite possibly six teams dancing this season, if things fall right. Kansas and Iowa State appear to be locked in barring an epic collapse, and I'd probably include Baylor in that category if Scott Drew weren't still coaching.
Oklahoma State would be in that upper tier if it hadn't looked so shaky since the Michael Cobbins injury, which leaves us with Kansas State, Oklahoma and yes, Texas. All three teams have underachieved to this point, but they've also got one problematic loss (yes, K-State's is the worst) and don't necessarily pass the eye test, which is important this time of year.
Considering K-State's chances of getting securely into the tourney seem rather small, it's a safe bet games like a home matchup with Oklahoma will be crucial come March. That will be true whether the Sooners a) continue to be a good, or even great team and end up as a quality win or b) see their lack of defense catch up to them and collapse, making a home loss a painful black mark on a resume.
Plus, there's just the basic need to defend the homeport in Big 12 play, which K-State has done pretty well in recent years. The Wildcats have lost just 6 conference games at home in the last 5 seasons (including this one) to teams not named Kansas, and half of those came in 2011-12.
So, what will it take to beat this Oklahoma team? Defense would be a good place to start. The Sooners are fifth in the country with 87 points per game and were only held under 76 once, in a 64-52 win over Texas A&M in Houston.
OU brings a variety of weapons to the table, starting with the Big 12's leading scorer, Cameron Clark. He would be pretty much a lock for the conference's Most Improved Player if such an award existed, considering he was just a bench player averaging a mere 6.5 points per game last season.
But he did start most of his first two years, and now he's a 6-7 forward who can do just about anything, including shoot 42% from 3. That being said, Shane Southwell seems like a decent matchup for Clark if he can stay out of foul trouble and doesn't let Clark get too low on the block.
The more worrisome threat might be Buddy Hield, a 6-4 sophomore guard capable of hitting the 3 or driving into the lane and creating. Between him and fellow guards Jordan Woodard (11.8 ppg and the guy Jevon Thomas must slow down) and Isaiah Cousins (10.9 ppg), OU's perimeter players don't like to waste much time shooting in their 4-out offense.
It's hard to be too impressed while watching the 1-in part of the offense, though I suppose 6-8 Ryan Spangler must be doing something right to be scoring 10.9 points per game and shooting 66% from the field. He can step out a bit and he's also one of the league's biggest threats on the offensive boards, so that should be a key focus for Thomas Gipson defensively.
At the other end, OU gets a lot of steals but it seems like if they don't get one they sort of get tired of playing defense. That's good news for Kansas State, considering how well practiced Bruce Weber's team is at slowing down the pace and taking care of the basketball.
If this game is played at a fast pace and we see scores in the 80s, or even the 70s, the 'Cats might be in trouble. But if K-State can move the ball effectively on offense, win the rebounding battle, and keep OU under 70 - like all but 3 opponents so far - I feel really good about the 'Cats' chances.