Three hard-to-swallow losses, three games that should have been wins, are the difference between the Sooners heading to Kansas City for this week's conference tournament with an 18-12 overall record, 11-1 nonconference record and 7-11 conference record.
* The Sooners led Cincinnati, an NCAA Tournament team, by 12 points with six minutes left. And lost.
* OU never trailed the final 17 minutes of regulation in an overtime road loss at Texas A&M.
* Last Wednesday night in Austin, the Sooners owned the lead much of the game. They didn't trail until there was 6:16 left and were outscored 10-2 the final four minutes.
Close out two of those three games, and a 17-13 overall record probably is enough to play in the NIT.
“That's typical of most seasons,” said OU coach Lon Kruger. “If you get three or four that go your way, then all of a sudden it becomes a pretty good year. If you have three or four don't quite go your way, it ends up being less than what you want.”
The defining stat is a 1-9 road record.
Only once did the Sooners produce clutch plays late in a road game. OU's win at Kansas State under the backdrop of Kruger coaching against his alma mater for the first time in Manhattan, was the only road win of the season.
Cincinnati, A&M and Texas were what-could-have-been losses.
“You win those games, and it's a better season,” Kruger said. “You don't win those games, you end up where we're at, a .500 team. Competitiveness at key moments, actually for 40 minutes, is what we're after. We improved it a little bit as a team, but we have to improve it a lot more.”
Second-half struggles were the most consistent variable for an inconsistent team.
Two telling stats:
* The Sooners have led at halftime in three of its last four losses.
* OU has gone 13 consecutive games without outscoring its opponent in the second half.
“We've been playing with these teams all year,” said point guard Sam Grooms. “It's not like we can't play with them. We hold our own. It's just the second-half stuff. That's the key, playing like we're capable for 40 minutes.”
Will hard lessons learned pay dividends next season?
Everyone in the rotation returns except reserve forward C.J. Washington.
Wyoming transfer Amath M'Baye, high school guards Buddy Hield and Jelon Hornbeak and forward Jarion Henry, former OU star Skeeter Henry's son, join the mix next season.
Newcomers will provide new energy. They'll lack experience but heat up competition for playing time.
But the 2011-12 season isn't over, yet.
One game won't dramatically alter the season. But if the Sooners defeat Texas A&M on Wednesday night at the Sprint Center, it would end a losing streak.
A win over A&M probably would only be the difference between 16-16 and 15-16 unless the Sooners were to pull off an improbable upset against Kansas. But two wins over A&M in a five-day span would produce a non-losing season.
“That would mean a lot,” said junior forward Andrew Fitzgerald. “It would be a jump start for us going into next year to be .500 or better after what we've gone through, the dark days.”
A .500 season would be a small step in the right direction.
“That would be a starting point, knowing we can be a lot better next season,” Grooms said. “But I want to be better than .500. It's bad enough we lost this many games.”
Lose two or three less and it would have been an NIT season.