January 16, 2019

Monday night, the NCAA’s top-ranked Oklahoma and Kansas squared off at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, providing one of the best college basketball games of the season from start-to-finish for the those who endured the three overtimes.

Usually the drama in college basketball is concentrated in March and early April, but Monday night was chock full of it. There were 13 lead changes, 13 ties, and mixed in for good measure, each team had a double-digit lead at one point or another. The win probability chart (via KenPom.com) for this game looks like a heart monitor gone wild:

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The victory was a testament to the grittiness of Bill Self’s Kansas team in a game where their two best players, power forward Perry Ellis and Frank Mason, shot a combined 16-of-48 from the field. Both still left positive impressions on the game – Ellis with his first half scoring and tenacity against the larger Sooners frontline, Mason directing the offense and playing tenacious defense – but it was late-blooming star Wayne Selden and combo guard Devonte’ Graham who went 10-for-20 from three-point range and refused to let the Sooners take control of their home court.

It was the heart of Oklahoma and head coach Lon Kruger, with a shallower bench (only seven players saw at least 10 minutes of action despite the additional 15 minutes of overtime), dragging themselves up and down the court looking like desert wanderers in search of an oasis by the end. But in one of the toughest environments for visiting teams in all of college basketball, with an amped up crowd and the specter of 12 consecutive Big XII championships for the Jayhawks,  Buddy Hield and crew didn’t just hold on for dear life, they went punch-for-punch with their rivals, until two late turnovers and tired legs got the best of them. It felt like Rocky vs. Apollo. Kansas got the decision, but did they really win?

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The respect for both sides shined through in an interview Buddy Hield gave with Scott Van Pelt on SportsCenter following the game. The interview itself was rarity for a player on the losing end on the road, but it was the audience for that interview that caught my eye. There they were, Kansas and Oklahoma fans together, waiting for the interview to get finished so they could shower the Sooner star with the respect he deserve. Hield’s 46 points tied an Allen Fieldhouse record for an opposing player and he did it in the most efficient way possible, with a true shooting percentage of 78.9. But that efficiency didn’t provide relief for the pure exhaustion he felt. Hield told Van Pelt, “I just need a bed right now.” I think most fans felt the same way.

This game was only the 22nd tilt between the top two ranked teams in the regular season since the Associated Press poll began in 1949, making it a rare treat on the journey to March Madness; yet, it wasn’t the most unique thing that resonated with me. Through all of the drama, effort and respect that emanated from Monday night’s matchup, the most unique thing about this game in this modern era of one-and-done basketball was how these teams were constituted.

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In an age when most successful, top tier programs rely on underclassmen and future NBA prospects to do the heavy lifting, neither Oklahoma and Kansas do.

Each team starts only one underclassmen (Khadeem Lattin for Oklahoma, Devonte’ Graham for Kansas), and both are sophomores. No freshman allowed. Self has trended over the years toward the practice of making his newbies earn playing time, while Kruger has never really had the high-ranked freshman class to allow immediate minutes.

Looking at both teams combined numbers from Monday night, 77.8 percent of the minutes played and 82.0 percent of the points scored were by juniors and seniors. Is this isolated incident going to open people’s eyes up to the importance of team continuity in college basketball? Probably not. The ability to acquire better talent will most likely trump keeping lesser talent longer for the foreseeable future, but it does show that keeping a team together over time can lead to success:

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As far as NBA Draft prospects, this game was not one that would catch the attention of most scouts. Based on the most recent Top 100 Draft Prospects list at DraftExpress, only four participated in this game. Any game involving Kentucky typically involves at least six. The two highest-ranked prospects, Kansas freshman forward Cheick Diallo (11) and sophomore guard Sviatoslav Mykhailuk (26) only saw five and six minutes of action respectively. The four prospects in the Top 100 (Diallo, Mykhailuk, Hield, Selden) combined for only 19.6 percent of the total minutes played and 32.8 percent of the points.  

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Hield’s star is certainly on the rise with his Player of the Year-level performance this season, but numbers aren’t going to be the sole determinant on whether an NBA team becomes enamored with his ability. BBALLBREAKDOWN colleague Matthew Way and I debated during the game who Hield most reminded us of, although those debates are mostly futile. Way likened Hield’s ability to create offense to Ben Gordon and I compared his build and shooting ability to Ray Allen, Gilbert Arenas, or Mitch Richmond. But it was the fact that there was only one potential impact NBA player to analyze after this game that was the most astounding.   

The thing is that in spite of the lack of impact underclassmen and potential NBA superstars, the play didn’t suffer. I always warn college basketball fans not to confuse drama with quality basketball. They are not the same thing, nor should they be confused as such. But at no point during Monday night’s contest could any fan sit there and make a cogent argument that this college game was lacking quality basketball. With rule changes implemented this season moving the shot clock to 30 seconds and reducing physical play, thus encouraging freedom of movement, let’s hope the uniqueness of this contest for its quality of play isn’t a one-time occurrence this season.

Kansas and Oklahoma will be absolutely meet again on February 12 in Norman.

They may meet again in the Big XII Tournament.

But time will tell if the uniqueness of this matchup is an outlier or a sign of things to come.  Let’s hope for all of our sake that Self’s Jayhawks and Kruger’s Sooners are able to replicate last night’s madness again in late March or early April.

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Jeff Feyerer

Jeff is a former basketball coach, sports marketing professional and writer, currently working as school financial administrator in Chicago. In addition to work for BBALLBREAKDOWN, he writes for Nylon Calculus, plays with spreadsheets, tries to defend college basketball and looks forward to the Fred Hoiberg era. Follow his musings on Twitter at @jfey5.

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