KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Big, the Sooners usually can handle. Good, the Sooners often can handle.
But an opponent who is both big and good? Not a chance.
Baylor is always big, and Thursday in the Big 12 quarterfinals, the Bears were good, too. They stunned the 17th-ranked Sooners 78-73, bursting to leads of 10-0, 37-23 and 52-31 before holding on during a frantic OU rally.
And that’s why all the talk about NCAA Tournament seedings is largely overrated. Want to know how far the undersized Sooners will go in the bracket? Don’t tell me where OU will be seeded. Tell me what kind of teams they will draw. Tell me how big is their foe.
Baylor’s 7-foot Isaiah Austin, 6-foot-9 primo athlete Cory Jefferson and burly Royce O’Neale combined for 44 points on 15-of-25 shooting and 26 rebounds. Their size produced easy baskets for the Bears and prevented the same from OU.
“Those guys are our key,” said Baylor point guard Kenny Chery. “We need them every day. And without them, what else can we do? When we get broken down, we need them to block shots, we need them to contest shots or make shots harder, and that's what they did.”
But the big men helped Baylor’s offense as much as its defense. Baylor made 24 baskets. Five came on dunks, three were virtually uncontested layups and another was a tip-in. The Sooners had to shift concern to the paint, and Baylor responded by shooting a salty 7-of-14 on 3-pointers. Allow the vast majority of an opponent’s field goals on 3-pointers and easy shots at the basket, and a defense is doomed.
Meanwhile, the long arms of Baylor’s big men, out of a zone defense, cut off OU passing lanes. The Sooners weren’t aggressive; they attempted just seven foul shots, and when the Sooners did attack the lane, Austin was there to turn them back. He blocked five shots. That left the Sooners to hoist from long distance; OU made 12 of 35 3-point shots.
“They won the battles early,” said OU coach Lon Kruger. “Our big guys, Ryan (Spangler) and Cam (Clark) and D.J. (Bennett) and Tyler (Neal) did a good job of fighting size all year long. Today we didn't win that battle. Again, I thought their big guys early established that they were going to catch where they wanted to and we doubled a little bit, but still they made plays at the rim that they didn't do in the other two ballgames.”
OU had swept Baylor in the regular season, 66-64 and 88-72. But the Bears dominated Thursday night. Spangler said the Sooners in practice worked on pump faking in the paint but didn’t follow through. Looked to me like the Sooners indeed tried pump faking, but Austin is so big, he didn’t have to jump to alter or block shots.
So now the smallish Sooners await their NCAA assignment and pray they don’t get paired with a behemoth early.
“Regardless, we've got to line up and win some battles and play better than we did tonight,” Kruger said.
But it will help if the Sooners get matched with someone close to their own size.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.