The Red River Rivalry hits the hardwood for the first of two installments on Monday night, with #7 Texas (12-3, 1-0 Big 12) heading north to take on #6 Oklahoma (15-1, 1-0) in Norman. While showcasing two of the best teams in the country, this game will also be a matchup of two of the best players in the Big 12: Texas guard A.J. Abrams (17.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg) and Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin (22.5 ppg, 14.1 rpg). Unfortunately for Rick Barnes, Abrams has been in a bit of a slump the past couple of weeks and they’ll need him to snap out of it in order to win this game. In his last five games Abrams shot just 28.8% from the field, so it should be no surprise that the Longhorns are just 3-2 in their last five. In their win over Iowa State on Saturday it was Gary Johnson who stepped up, posting numbers of seventeen points and nine boards on the day. Not sure if he can do the same against the Griffin Brothers, but Texas will need superior efforts from their big men (Dexter Pittman and Connor Atchley as well) on Monday night.
As for the younger Griffin, who’s one of the favorites in the national Player of the Year race, it’s been a case of “man amongst boys” for most of the season. It’s one thing to put up fourteen rebounds or so on a couple of occasions. But to average such a number is amazing in this era of college basketball, especially when you consider how good a scorer he is. When talking about Griffin’s ability to clean the glass, you’re better off focusing on the number of games in which he’s missed out on grabbing at least ten boards (three) and those stats also give a clue when coming up with ways to limit his production. It sounds simple to say, but you’ve got to keep him off the offensive boards in order to beat Oklahoma. In those three games he had a total of three offensive rebounds, so even though the Sooners won all three games Texas will want to start there in regards to their keys.
But for as good as the Griffins are up front, the same can be said for Jeff Capel’s team this year as it was last: the guards need to play consistent basketball for the Sooners to compete for championships. The loss at Arkansas is a good example of this. Yes freshman Willie Warren went off for thirty-five points and Tony Crocker eighteen, but they got no help at all from Austin Johnson (1-8, two points) and the rest of that rotation (Cade Davis and Omar Leary played poorly as well). They’re going to be tested in this one, not just by Abrams but by point guard Justin Mason and swingman Damion James, both of whom have the size and athletic ability to harass them on the perimeter. The Oklahoma guards don’t have to set the world on fire in order to win games, but they have to at least be a presence. If they do that opponents can’t give most of their attention to Blake Griffin inside, allowing him to go to work on the blocks.
The important questions regarding this game are whether or not the Longhorns can control the glass (they’re actually a better rebounding team than the Sooners), how productive the Sooner guards will be, and A.J. Abrams snapping out of his current shooting slump. Historically the Big 12 is one of the toughest conferences to win league games on the road, and in front of a crazed Lloyd Noble Center crowd I like the Sooners to win this one.
Winner: Oklahoma Margin: 3-7 pts.