Recent history not on Sooners' side in Big 12 tournament

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

Oklahoma's Christian James looks for an open teammate during the Sooners' game against Kansas on March 5 at Lloyd Noble Center.

NORMAN, Okla. — Christian James stood opposite Buddy Hield along the hash marks lining a Sprint Center free-throw lane.

Hield was seconds away from hitting a half-court shot to seal what would’ve been a Big 12 tournament win over West Virginia on March 11, 2016. The shot ultimately didn’t count — Hield was a bit late on the release — but the short-lived celebration that carried into the arena’s lower-level seats still holds a special place for the then-freshman James.

“It was a tough-fought game from beginning to end,” James said. “We just came up a little bit short. We had the fight, the effort was there. I’ll take that loss any day like that. Fighting, going out hard like that. It was just a great game ... That was a great moment for me and this team.”

The shot that wasn’t turned three years old Monday, and it’s the closest Oklahoma has been to a Big 12 tournament victory since the night before, when OU beat Iowa State.

The Sooners have lost their conference tournament openers the past two seasons — 82-63 to TCU in 2017 and 71-60 to Oklahoma State last year.

If there’s anything junior Kristian Doolittle can take away from his conference tournament experience, OU (19-12, 7-11 Big 12) can’t afford to overlook anyone.

“I wish we would’ve focused more,” Doolittle said. “Playing OSU last year, we got beat because we didn’t take them as seriously as we should’ve.”

Two years of leaving Kansas City after one game has been especially hard for James, who joined Hield in the Sprint Center stands for what would’ve been a Big 12 title game-clinching victory.

“I hated the feeling last year, being out in the first round,” James said. “It’s a hurtful feeling that you lose in the first round. That’s just a feeling you don’t want to feel. So, we’ve got to come out and play hard, try my hardest to help these guys and lead these guys to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

OU will get another shot at West Virginia Wednesday (8:30 p.m., ESPNU) to open this year's tournament, and its pride won’t be the only thing at stake.

An at-large NCAA tournament bid still isn't guaranteed, so coach Lon Kruger doesn’t expect his team to be content.

“We always feel like we need one more, regardless of what anyone says right now,” Kruger said. “We're going to go into it thinking we need one more and if we do get that one, we'll think the same on Thursday, that we need one more.”

The Sooners split this season's series with the Mountaineers and won the programs' latest battle on March 2. Both Jamal Bieniemy and Aaron Calixte scored 22 points, OU shot 59.2 percent from the floor and beat West Virginia 92-80 at Lloyd Noble Center.

OU knows previous success doesn’t always translate in rematches. West Virginia (12-19, 4-14) finished last in the Big 12 standings, but playing the same team three times in one season hasn’t favored OU in recent years.

During Kruger’s tenure, the Sooners are 1-5 in Big 12 tournament rematches against teams they split their regular-season series with and 1-2 against teams they swept.

“It’s very tough, because you feel like you know the team frontwards and backwards, but anything can happen in the Big 12 tournament,” Doolittle said. “Even though you played the team twice, you kind of know the tendencies, but teams like to switch up things that they’ve done the first few times.”

History might not favor the Sooners, but James said he won’t take anything for granted in his final conference tournament.

“It’s always tough playing a team three times,” James said. “You get familiar with them. They know the ins and outs pretty much. [West Virginia] been playing together, more as a team. We have to match their intensity.”