KANSAS CITY, Mo. — First, take out a pen and write ‘KANSAS’ at the top, no questions asked. We don’t care if Justin Bieber is starting at point guard for the Jayhawks; Bill Self ain’t foolin’ us the same way twice.
So you slot Kansas and Baylor at one end, Texas Tech and TCU at the other. As for projecting the rest of the men’s basketball race in the Big 12 Conference, well — have fun, champ. With the middle of this league, it’s a pencil proposition. Scribble the names of teams three through eight on little pieces of paper, grab a hat, and go to town. We’ll wait.
“Scary,” Horned Frogs coach Trent Johnson mused during Big 12 conference media day Wednesday at the Sprint Center. “I just think it’s as deep as all get-out.”
Oklahoma State is the sexy dark horse, tapped for third by the league’s coaches in the preseason poll released last Friday. West Virginia was sixth, a fact that coach Bob Huggins, no stranger to the disrespect card, had to love. Kansas State was fifth, Iowa State was eighth, and both figure to be in the mix for NCAA Tournament berths.
And then there’s Oklahoma. Lurking.
“I’m just looking forward to being the underdogs and (a chance) to show the league that we’re better than what they picked us at,” forward Amath M’Baye said of the preseason poll, which slotted the Sooners at seventh. “Being a sleeper is a great thing.”
Oklahoma’s an intriguing bunch — or at least as intriguing as a bunch can be coming off a 15-16 campaign. Coach Lon Kruger returns 88 percent of his scoring from a year ago, his first in Norman, and gets to add M’Baye, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Wyoming, into that mix. With seven players on hand listed at 6-7 or taller, he’s also got more length and depth to toy around with the second time around the track.
Kruger has a little slice of history in his corner, too. At each of the coach’s previous collegiate stops — Pan-American, K-State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV — his teams improved by an average of four victories from Year One to Year Two. Of those five second-season campaigns, four ended with winning records; three were capped by berths in either the Big Dance or the NIT.
We’re probably putting the Schooner well before the horse here, but a 19-win Sooner squad, hypothetically, would certainly have the kind of cache to find a spot somewhere among the On-The-Bubble Club. Oklahoma hasn’t visited Bracketville since 2009, the program’s longest NCAA tourney drought since field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
“We’ve got to be more physical as a group, be a little tougher,” Kruger offered. “Get that defensive stop when we need one, get that big board when we need one. We (were) right there several times last year, and just couldn’t quite get over (the hump).”
Poise is the goal; toughness, the mantra. To that end, Kruger’s called for impromptu scrimmages at the end of practice, when his kids are at their most fatigued. At one point, the Sooners went through a series of Navy SEAL workouts; there was even a session on mental fortitude with former SEALs Chief Special Warfare Operator Rob Stella.
“You can feel it in the air; that’s what everybody’s thinking about,” forward Romero Osby said. “You know, every team in the Big 12 has pretty much been to the tournament within these last four years, at some point in time.
“And we want to be one of those teams that gets back there and, you know, kind of carries on the legacy — and starts a legacy for these young guys.”
Of course, to carry the legacy, you’ve first got to show that you can carry the water. Team Lon faded down the stretch a season ago, dropping nine of its last 11 games. In games decided by eight points or fewer, Oklahoma wound up with a record of 4-6, and just 2-5 in Big 12 contests.
Osby’s already done the math on that last stat. Flip those agonizing conference setbacks around, and the record’s 5-2. Suddenly, you’re almost sniffing .500 in the league, and …
“You’re talking about an NCAA tournament berth,” he said with a knowing smile. “So that’s just something we’ve got to focus on.”
In the meantime, keep those pencils sharp. And that eraser within arm’s reach.