M'Baye leads Sooners past Oklahoma State
NORMAN, Okla. — Amath M'Baye spun around a pick, flashed to the basket and finished off Oklahoma State Saturday with a statement of a dunk.
It was the last of three straight baskets deep into the second half for M'Baye. The first was a 3-pointer, followed by an alley-oop layup before the dunk that unofficially ended any chance Oklahoma State had of completing its second-half rally.
M'Baye scored 15 points and Oklahoma beat the Cowboys for the ninth consecutive season in Norman, this one a 77-68 victory. What M'Baye gives the Sooners is something they didn't have a year ago, and it is more than the fact he can shoot 3-pointers as well as play inside, a combination in a player the Sooners have not had in years.
What he gives the Sooners is a chance at this whole NCAA Tournament thing.
Yeah, remember that? Chances are you don't, considering the Sooners had Blake Griffin the last time they made it past Kansas City and the Big 12 Tournament. Since that 2008-09 season, OU has lost a coach in Jeff Capel, lost its identity developed first under former coaches Billy Tubbs and Kelvin Sampson and brushed off NCAA violations, too.
But no reason to think about the past when March looks awfully pleasant. Saturday's win against an 11-3 Oklahoma State team might have been coach Lon Kruger's most notable victory in his short time at OU. The Sooners never trailed and the game was never tied.
While it might be too early for Kruger to say he's noticed the fact the Sooners are ascending both the RPI and strength of schedule rankings, he has to be happy his team is 2-0 in the Big 12 Conference for the first time since 08-09. OU hadn't even been 1-0 in conference since then, either.
"No, not really," Kruger said of whether he has done any bracket projecting. "Our players watch it as fans, but we don't talk about it. We talk about being a better basketball team every day. We don't dwell on it."
It's January, I get it, but that doesn't mean it's too soon to ask Kruger about the immediate future. After all, that kind of question has been dismissed as irrelevant for the better part of four seasons as OU hasn't had a winning season or won more than five times in conference since 08-09.
It's not irrelevant anymore.
OU improved to 11-3 overall Saturday and did it with a lineup featuring a pair of freshmen, newcomer M'Baye and three players off the bench who started a year ago. That tells you the Sooners not only upgraded in talent, but they have mixed the right pieces and played the right parts.
They also held it together in the second half a season after experiencing a run of home conference games where they wilted.
"The depth is a big key," Kruger said. "We withstood a run and maintained our composure. Good win for us. We beat a good ball club. We have a ways to go and we're making progress."
OU entered the game ranked No. 18 in RPI and No. 13 in strength of schedule, two crucial factors in the criteria to make the NCAA Tournament. And with a home game Wednesday against Texas Tech, the Sooners have an excellent chance of improving to 3-0 in the league.
All of this comes one conference season removed from second-half home meltdowns against Kansas, Iowa State, Missouri and Baylor.
"Our chemistry has been really good," said Romero Osby, who scored a team-best 17 points and is the lone senior in the starting lineup. "It's unique to have five starters back and three of them coming off the bench."
One of the reasons for that is M'Baye, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Wyoming, who is averaging 9.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.
There were more than a handful of NBA scouts on hand Saturday to check out OSU freshman Marcus Smart and sophomore forward Le'Bryan Nash, but it was M'Baye who impressed with his ability to play an inside-outside style the Sooners have been without. M'Baye was 5-of-9 shooting, scored a career high and made all four of his free throws.
OSU was down by as much as 14 points in the second half and got as close as one, but the Sooners shot 61 percent from the 3-point line and M'Baye's seven consecutive points highlighted OU's performance.
"It wasn't mine," M'Baye said of his scoring run, "It was the team's, but I'm starting to feel great and my teammates are able to work with me. I think I'm starting to feel really comfortable."
The Sooners are looking that way, too. It's a long way until March, but having won four in a row and full of momentum, things are looking a lot better than they have in a long time.