Red River rivals have been Big 12 hoops surprise

Texas Longhorns head coach Rick Barnes talks with team during the first half against the Temple Owls at the Wells Fargo Center. Texas defeated Temple 81-80 in overtime.

Howard Smith/Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Texas wasn’t supposed to have enough talent without have All-Name teamers Ioannis Papapetrou and Myck Kabongo, who could be key pieces on this year’s team.

Oklahoma lost its top three scorers: Romero Osby, Steven Pledger and Amath M’Baye. It didn’t return anyone who averaged double-digit scoring a year ago and couldn’t rely on NBA talent to reload like Kansas.

The two have been among a handful of surprises (howdy there, Iowa State) in the Big 12 this season, and are within reach of NCAA Tournament bids—or more. For Texas, that’s especially eye-popping.

The Longhorns were picked to finish eighth in the conference, and ugly early-season wins over Mercer and South Alabama seemed to confirm those suspicions. Texas has rolled to an 11-3 start with a win on the road against then-No. 15 North Carolina. Its only losses have come to BYU and No. 5 Michigan State before dropping its conference opener to Oklahoma on Saturday.

Wednesday night, both Red River rivals will have opportunities for the biggest wins of their young seasons. The Sooners will try to reach 2-0 in Big 12 play at home against No. 18 Kansas, while Texas goes on the road to face No. 11 Oklahoma State,

"They wouldn’t be where they were if they weren’t good, but honestly, I’m concerned about us right now," Texas coach Rick Barnes said.

The smaller Sooners outrebounded Barnes’ team, 39-28, and Barnes was displeased with the effort there as well as offensive execution and showing on screens.

"That’s as disappointing as anything we’ve done, is not be consistent in small details," Barnes said. "We have to be better offensively."

Oklahoma’s outrebounding its opponents by just 3.7 boards per game this season, but the Sooners’ lack of size beyond Ryan Spangler (seven 10-rebound games this season) has necessitated effort plays.

"Our guys have understood all year that perimeter guys have to go in and get loose balls," head coach Lon Kruger said.

Oklahoma State lost its conference opener on the road to Kansas State, and preseason favorite Kansas has looked mortal all season as a young team has sought to find its footing. Losses to Villanova, Colorado, Florida and San Diego State (KU’s first nonconference home loss since 2006) have KU with more losses than all but two teams in the Big 12. Belief won’t be a problem for Oklahoma, who is 12-2 but has played only one ranked team all season: No. 5 Michigan State. It lost in Brooklyn, N.Y., 87-76, after jumping out to an early lead. 

"There are definitely parts of our game we have to shore up," Kruger said. "We haven’t covered people with the conviction you have to."

Oklahoma’s given up 78.3 points a game, almost eight more than any team in the Big 12 and are ninth in the Big 12 in field goal defense percentage (.423).

Texas and Oklahoma will have to melt away some of those flaws to keep surprise seasons rolling, but if either team can spring a Wednesday upset, those surprise seasons will garner even more legitimacy.

"Starting conference play, anytime you can get one in the right column, you feel great," Kruger said.