Bill Self has had a small handful of negative narratives surrounding him in his time at KU. First it was that he couldn’t win the big games in March. He had back-to-back ugly 1st round losses in year two and three, but two years later he won a title and put that to rest (at least for a while, since some fans don’t seem to understand that no one just dominates in the tournament every single year). Then there was the “free the three” movement after Self referred to three point shooting as “fool’s gold,” seemingly indicating an unwillingness to adapt to the evolution of the game. But it wasn’t long afterward that Self starting using primarily one-big sets, deviating sharply from his preferred big man duo in the froncourt, and in 2018 Self had the best outside shooting roster in Kansas history, and gave them a green light to shoot more than 41% of their shots from three, and ranking 11th nationally in hitting those shots 40.1% of the time.
I bring this up to point out that Self has a habit of proving the doubters wrong, which leads me to another big narrative he faces: he’s really struggled at times to beat his alma mater, especially on the road, regardless of how good the teams are. OSU also has the distinction of being the only school to sweep a regular season series with Kansas since Bill Self took over. But while people still bring up these Stillwater struggles, Self’s Jayhawks have three straight wins in this series, and Kansas has won 9 out of the last 10 times they’ve played. All 10 of those took place after the 2018 squad somehow lost twice to an OSU team that didn’t even make the tournament, so if Self actually had some sort of mental block surrounding the school where he played college basketball, it seems like it’s faded.
This year, KU already has a win over the Cowboys. It was both teams’ first foray into league play, and despite the game being played in the friendly confines of AFH, OSU took Kansas down to the wire before losing by two. Kansas really struggled to come away with that win, with their win probability close to 30% before they closed the game on a 7-3 run in the final minute to end up with a win.
Since OSU took the Jayhawks down to the wire on New Year’s Eve, is it safe to assume we should all be worried as Kansas fans? Sort of. The Big 12 is insanely deep, and with OSU sitting in a 3-way tie for 3rd, a road game against a team like this is always going be dangerous. And while the Cowboys aren’t desperate for a signature win to work their way into the tournament field, Bracket Matrix does show them on the 10 line, and a win like this would go a long way toward securing their spot in the dance.
On the other hand, Kansas is the better team, albeit the margins aren’t huge and Vegas may have this game fairly close to even (KU is -1.5 to -2 most places at this moment). While Okie State has the 6th ranked defense in the country in KenPom’s ratings, they are a messy 119th on the offensive end of the court. The first time these teams played, OSU shot 13-29 (44.8%) from three. There was definitely some “fool’s gold” at play there because Oklahoma State ranks 256th nationally in hitting 32.4% from deep, and they find themselves hitting only 32.1% since conference play began. Former Jayhawk and 5 star recruit Bryce Thompson also did a lot to keep the Cowboys in that game, and while Thompson has certainly improved as a shooter since his year in Kansas, he’s unlikely to hit 7-10 from three again, since both those numbers were career highs.
While Oklahoma State’s uncharacteristic success from three certainly contributed to the drama of that game, they really get after it defensively, which played a large role in frustrating the Jayhawks as well. The team is 7th nationally in two point defense, holding opponents to just over 43%. But unlike the Iowa State team that beat KU up just over a week ago, their defensive success doesn’t rely heavily on forcing turnovers. For the year they turn the opponent over just under 20% of the time, though they’ve picked that up recently, ranking 4th in Big 12 play by forcing TOs just over 20% of the time against high level competition. Still, OSU will try to win this game by making every offensive set a struggle, and getting a hand in the face of every shooter.
Offensively, Oklahoma State has struggled to maintain possession of the ball. Though it’s gotten slightly better in league play, they rank 312th in offensive TO rate at 20.8%. This may be a game where Harris’ quick hands and McCullar’s long arms give KU a shot at some transition points. Udeh could also factor in here by getting his hands on balls intended for the post. A big problem they face is that they don’t do anything else well enough to make up for the turnovers. In Big 12 play, they rank 8th in 2 point shooting, 6th in 3 point shooting, 9th in offensive rebounds, 8th in free throw rate, and 9th in free throw percentage. A quick glance at their results in league play so far paints a pretty clear picture: they don’t allow a lot of points, but they don’t consistently score many either. They’re 4-1 in games where they score over 1 point per possession, and 3-4 when they don’t. They’re 6-2 when they hold their opponent under that same number.
This feels like a game that’s outcome will rely more heavily on how Kansas plays than how Oklahoma State plays. No one really comes out and spends the game enjoying efficient scoring when they play this team, but if you hit enough of your shots, OSU will struggle to keep up. With Gradey Dick starting to find new ways to contribute offensively when teams are taking away the three, Dajuan Harris seemingly feeling more comfortable as a scorer, and Kevin McCullar actually driving instead of waiting for open shots on the perimeter, you can see glimpses of KU starting to figure out how to score more consistently. Defensively, Kansas should have the advantage here, and unless Oklahoma State hits a bunch of threes, I think KU can gut out a win in what may be a very ugly game in Stillwater.
Kansas 67, Oklahoma State 64