It's Big Monday — the first Big 12 showcase on a Monday night in Norman in three years — and this is the first game of the Sooners' schedule that isn't about preparation.
It's about energy. Yes, it always is, but in OU's game Monday night against Texas, it's more about energy, toughness and mental ability more than ever.
This Big Monday game is seen as a must win by players and coaches. Conference games always are, but this one will help put them back on the winning track after suffering their first Big 12 loss to Kansas State on Saturday. And they're hoping it will give them a boost before upcoming games against Kansas and Baylor.
That's why junior Amath M'Baye and freshman Je'lon Hornbeak said practice felt a little different Sunday. Because it was.
“Today was way lighter than what it is usually,” M'Baye said. “Coach was trying to save our legs.”
Makes sense. The Sooners have 53 hours between their Saturday and Monday tip times. But the forward and guard said the preparation for the Longhorns was different from any other game preparation this season.
“We did a compact practice of what we would do in a regular week in a two-hour practice,” M'Baye said.
They watched scouting film. They talked over tiny changes. They had a light practice and they'll have a pregame shootaround.
“You may tweak a thing or two in preparation for the next opponent,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, “but nothing major. It's not necessarily a high intensity practice. ... Just try to get a feel for what the next opponent is doing.”
Texas didn't have much time to prepare either. The Longhorns are coming off a loss at home to Kansas. But energy-wise and mentally, the Sooners think they'll have an edge and it's all because of 200 smiling little faces.
At Sunday's practice, the Sooners walked onto the game court at Lloyd Noble Center for their only true practice before Big Monday and saw little OU fans lining the court. Some sat two to a chair. Some had their backs rested against the scorer's table with their feet in front of them.
“When we were watching film, nobody was smiling,” Hornbeak said after practice. “No matter if we're sad or mad, for the kids we always try to put a smile on. I'm really not in the mood to smile or anything, but I know it means a lot to these kids so if it means a lot to them, it means a lot to me.”
The children, who were invited by the OU Athletics Department to watch a practice, chimed in with “oohs” and “ahhs” during warm-ups. They counted how many shots the players made in a row and shouted “Dunk it, dunk it!”
“Just the fact that we were able to make a little kid's day even better is a blessing,” M'Baye said post-practice as one kid after another handed him posters, shirts and basketballs to sign. “I know that kind of stuff, I always enjoyed when I was little. I was always like, ‘Man, I love this guy.' The fact that they got to watch us a little bit and talk to us a little bit and us give back to them is great. All the smiling faces just makes us happier.”
Neither M'Baye or Hornbeak would say they dislike the turnaround. Big Monday means becoming a more respected program — and that's exactly what drew the two first-year starters to Norman. But when they run on the court to take on their hated rivals, they said they'll have a better mentality because of the wide-eyed children who watched them prepare.
“It was a surprise to us,” Hornbeak said. “It kind of helps us take our mind of the game a little bit. We've been a little up and down, especially coming off this loss. It just brightens the mood of everybody.”
Oklahoma vs. Texas
*When: 8:30 p.m. Monday
*Where: Lloyd Noble Center, Norman
*TV: ESPN (Cox 29/HD 720, Dish 140, DirecTV 206, U-verse 602)
*Radio: KOKC-AM 1520
Three things to know
*OU will have its second tip within 53 hours.
*The Sooners are 23-11 against the Longhorns in Norman.
*Texas has lost its first four Big 12 games, while OU is coming off its first conference loss.