OU men's basketball: Late-game defense the focus for OU entering first conference road trip

Jan. 6—Four of Oklahoma's five losses this season have been decided by less than five points.

If there's one trend the Sooners can point to within those games, it's their defense.

The Sooners' defense as a whole has been solid. They're surrendering under 62 points per game, which ranks second in the Big 12 and 30th nationally. But the problem has been their defense in the final minutes of close games.

Against Texas last Saturday, a one-point loss, the Sooners surrendered 13 points in the final 2:31 of game time. In their last outing against Iowa State Wednesday, a three-point loss, the Sooners allowed the Cyclones to score 11 points in the final three minutes.

While being competitive has helped the Sooners stay confident, their struggles defensively late in games remains a source of frustration.

"If we can change the outcome of some of those games, we'd be a top-25 team," OU veteran forward Tanner Groves said during his media availability Friday. "So we're good enough to compete with every single team in the nation. But it just kind of comes down to the last four minutes of the game, getting stops and playing defense.

"So that's just kind of the main thing that we've been focusing on is trying to defend in the last four minutes and we've got to clean that up."

The Sooners' (9-5, 0-2 Big 12) offense has had its own miscues in crunch time, too. Trailing by one point with seven seconds remaining against the Cyclones, the Sooners turned the ball over on an inbounds pass that gave possession back to ISU.

But for OU coach Porter Moser, the focus remains on fixing the defense.

"You can point to missed shorts [and things like that], but you've got to get stops," Moser said. "... In this league, it's possession by possession. Everything matters. Ball-screen coverage, it matters at the end of a game. In the first half, everything matters.

"We've got to particularly get some really good stops at the end, and we just haven't been able to do that."

Sooner preparing for first road test of conference slate

While the team is focusing on late-game defense, it won't be easy to fix that at Texas Tech.

The Red Raiders (10-4, 0-2 Big 12) rank third in the Big 12 in scoring offense with 79.5 points per game. They've been good at home this season, winning eight of nine games at United Supermarkets Arena.

Like the Sooners, the Red Raiders are still looking for their first Big 12 win after dropping close contests to TCU (67-61) and No. 3-ranked Kansas (75-72). They're led by fifth-year senior forward Kevin Obanor, who's averaging 16.5 points per game this season on 53 percent shooting.

"He's a matchup problem," Moser said. "Because he's shooting the ball so well. He's bigger to shoot it over smaller guys. If you switch, he's gonna roll you into the post. He's really effective posting up and he's really effective shooting the ball.

"Everything else is about physically how they're going to get into you. Every one of them is going to guard you up and then you've got to deal with their crowd. It's one of the best atmospheres in the country. It's going to be really loud. And you've got to be able to handle their runs. We've got to be able to handle their runs when they start getting going."

Grant Sherfield looking to bounce back

Wednesday was a rare tough game for the OU point guard.

He finished with just four points on 1-of-7 shooting, marking the first time this season he failed to score 10 points or more. He also struggled with foul trouble, and the Iowa State defense never allowed Sherfield to settle into the game.

The Sooners are confident he'll bounce back against Texas Tech. But through two games of conference play, it's clear that Sherfield — averaging 17.3 points per game this season — is likely to be the No. 1 target for opposing defenses.

"The mentality's got to be the understanding that he's earned the top spot on people's scouting report," Moser said. "With that comes a lot. Working harder, you might have to loosen it up by getting it out of a trap and moving it to some other guys... You can't be surprised if they're up in you a little harder. It is the Big 12 and he's one of our best players.

"I just heard Tanner talking him through that. Grant's been off to a phenomenal start for us. We need him to play well in the Big 12. We need that and I'm confident he's going to."

Jesse Crittenden is the sports editor of The Transcript and covers OU athletics. Reach him at jesse@normantranscript.com or at 405-366-3580