Tramel's ScissorTales: Big Ten considering Big 12 model of dropping divisions

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Just as Jacob Groves’ 37-foot shot descended toward the rim, the West Virginia musket blasted.

It’s a halftime tradition at WVU Coliseum. The Mountaineer mascot shoots off the musket, ala OU’s Ruf-Neks shotgun, as soon as the halftime buzzer sounds.

Except this tradition backfired. The musket blast seemed to be a celebration of Groves’ ultra-deep ball, which caught the back iron and ricocheted through the net to give the Sooner basketball team a 30-22 halftime lead in Morgantown.

But are we sure the Mountaineer fired the musket? Any chance Tanner Groves, Jacob’s brother and a reasonable facsimile for the Mountaineer, with full beard, donned a coonskin cap, grabbed the musket and fired it off in celebration?

Couldn’t blame Groves if he did. It was quite a night for the Groves brothers. Quite a night for the Sooners.

OU beat West Virginia 72-62 Wednesday night to stop a four-game losing streak. The victory came with all kinds of residual benefits.

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Jan 26, 2022; Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; Oklahoma Sooners forward Jacob Groves (34) celebrates with teammates after a made three pointer at the end of the first half against the West Virginia Mountaineers at WVU Coliseum.
Jan 26, 2022; Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; Oklahoma Sooners forward Jacob Groves (34) celebrates with teammates after a made three pointer at the end of the first half against the West Virginia Mountaineers at WVU Coliseum.

Starting with the Groves brothers. Tanner is back in the saddle after an alarming slump. He scored 21 points and missed only two shots. And Jacob not only cracked the starting lineup, but he also delivered, with 12 points and he, too, only missed two shots.

The Sooners also got solid play from Eastern Illinois transfer Marvin Johnson, who had been a non-factor most of the season, and Bijan Cortes and Umoja Gibson showed some ballhandling chops against West Virginia’s press while starting point guard Jordan Goldwire was limited to 21½ minutes by foul trouble.

But the Groves brothers, transfers from Eastern Washington, were the story.

Tanner Groves looks like a lumberjack. At least that’s how I’ve described him. Thick, curly hair. Thick beard. Pleasant personality. Pacific Northwest pedigree.

But maybe I’ve been on the wrong side of the Continental Divide. ESPN’s Mark Neely likened Groves to the Mountaineer, and that seems apropos. Not that West Virginia is in any mood today to grant Groves any kind of status.

Groves scored just 17 points in 3½ games – Texas, Texas Christian, Kansas and half of Baylor – before breaking out for 11 points in the second half against the Bears. Then Groves made nine of 11 shots against West Virginia.

“It’s tough,” Groves said. “These are like the best teams in the country. Nothing’s ever going to be easy. The teams that we’ve played in the last four games have scouted me and other teammates pretty hard ... we were able to turn it around and fight back.”

Groves is right. It is tough. The Big Sky Conference doesn’t trot athletic front lines like the Sooners saw against Texas and Baylor. He’s a 6-foot-9 center with excellent ball skills and footwork. But extreme athletic ability can give Groves problems.

“As a new player in the Big 12, it’s going to happen from time to time,” Groves said of his struggles. “I’m able to realize that and bounce back.”

And Groves did it when his brother made his first OU start.

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OU coach Porter Moser inserted Jacob Groves in place of Elijah Harkless, who was limited to just four minutes. Harkless is OU’s toughest player, and West Virginia is a tough team, but Moser’s counter of size and skilled offense paid off.

“Incredible having Jake back in the starting lineup,” Tanner Groves said. “Kind of felt like old times back at Eastern Washington. Jake being back gave him a little bit of confidence ... we’re going to need him to win some games down the stretch.”

The Sooners had lost four straight, and another defeat would have put OU tied for last place in the Big 12. Instead, the 13-7 Sooners are 3-5 in conference, in a three-way tie for sixth.

“We were celebrating, all excited, we got in the huddle at the end, and Coach said something I really liked,” Tanner Groves said. “He said, ‘Why not Oklahoma?’ I couldn’t agree more with him. We are so capable of doing great things.

“We’re right there with some of the best teams in the nation. Baylor on the road, we were right there. Kansas at home, we were right there. We can beat these teams, and we just gotta believe and stick with it.”

The Sooners will need Harkless. His four-minute game was peculiar. But Johnson’s extreme athletic ability was welcome. And Jacob Groves’ offense seemed to transform the starting lineup.

As Moser said after the game, OU got deeper, which is not a usual occurrence in late January. The Sooners went to the mountains and found some depth and a promising starting lineup and a revived center, all of which should make their path to the NCAA Tournament much easier.

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Big Ten considering Big 12 model

The Big 12 was hooted more than a decade ago, when it was reduced to 10 schools and the conference forged ahead without divisional play.

But the Big 12 stabilized, eventually resumed a championship game without divisions and now seems in a good place even after the soon-to-come departures of OU and Texas.

And even the high-brows are looking at the Big 12 as a guide. Iowa athletic director Gary Barta told The Athletic that the Big Ten is considering scrapping divisions, while also going to an eight-game conference schedule, down from the current nine.

The Big Ten’s motivation is the College Football Playoff.

The Southeastern Conference dominates college football, with Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana State winning the last three national titles. The Big Ten’s only national championship since 2002 came from Ohio State in 2014.

Since then, the Big Ten has placed teams in the four-team playoff in 2015 (Michigan State), 2016 (Ohio State), 2019 (Ohio State), 2020 (Ohio State) and 2021 (Michigan). But only the 2020 Buckeyes advanced past the semifinals.

It’s a mystery how scrapping divisions would help the Big Ten’s playoff cause.

Big Ten football adopted East and West divisions for the 2014 football season. Since then, four East Division schools have won the Big Ten championship – Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan -- and no West Division school has won the Big Ten championship.

But is that a bad thing? A dominant division doesn’t hurt a conference’s status or chance for ultimate glory.

The SEC West clearly lords over the SEC East and has for more than a decade. Has the SEC stumbled?

The Big 12’s glory days came when either the North Division (late ’90s) or South Division (early ‘00s) ruled the conference.

Scrap divisions, and the Big Ten might be asking Michigan or Ohio State to beat its arch rival twice in eight days. Might be asking a team safely in the playoff to navigate a landmine it otherwise wouldn’t have had to navigate.

The Big Ten discussions come during a couple of potential changes in college football.

The proposed expansion of the playoff is a factor. If the field expands to 12 teams, the Big Ten figures to get at least two participants most years, perhaps three. The Big Ten would have had three in 2021.

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But expansion talks have stalled, and Barta said the Big Ten might have to make a decision about its 2023 scheduling format before a decision is made about the playoff.

Also, the Big Ten’s new alliance with the Pac-12 and the Atlantic Coast conferences are an impetus for going to an eight-game league schedule. Eliminating a conference game would give the Big Ten an extra slot to schedule an ACC or Pac-12 opponent, without having to cash in one of the no-return home games against a mid-major.

The alliance was created mostly in response to the SEC’s pilfering of OU and Texas. Heck, so was opposition to quick approval of the playoff expansion.

The alliance’s long-term viability remains unknown. Does it have stamina and can it produce better branding and standing for the leagues drowning in the SEC’s dominance? Or is the alliance just a public relations campaign to counter the SEC?

This much is true. A 14-team conference with an eight-game schedule and no divisions is much different than a 10-team conference with a nine-game schedule and no divisions.

The Big 12 plays a round-robin schedule. The Big Ten, of course, would not.

In a 14-team league with eight conference games, teams are playing only 61.5 percent of their fellow members each year.

It seems unbalanced schedules and unpleasant tiebreakers could be involved in determining championship-game participants. The Big Ten won’t care as long as Ohio State and/or Michigan aren’t the aggrieved. The Big Ten famously changed its own rules in mid-season 2020 to allow Ohio State to play in the Covid-year championship game.

But the first time Ohio State is excluded on some quirk of a 14-team, non-divisional league, the Buckeyes will go all Kurt Russell, holding a shotgun as Wyatt Earp, vowing that hell’s on its way.

Even the Big 12 knows that non-divisions only works when the league is less than 12 teams. When the conference soon expands with Central Florida, Brigham Young, Houston and Cincinnati, the Big 12 plans to split into divisions.

But the Big Ten endorsement is nice. The conference that was once was hooted now is hailed.

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NFL predictions: Familiar quarterbacks in conference title games

The Super Bowl semifinals arrive Sunday, and three of the four quarterbacks still playing were seen up close and personal long before the bright lights of the National Football League.

The Rams’ Matthew Stafford quarterbacked Georgia to a 35-14 rout of OSU in September 2007.

The Bengals’ Joe Burrow quarterbacked LSU to a 63-28 Peach Bowl rout of OU in a December 2019 national semifinal.

The Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, while at Texas Tech, started five games against either OU or OSU and didn’t win any of them, though he won eternal admiration from both camps.

Among the four conference-championship game QBs, only the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t play against either OU or OSU. Eastern Illinois doesn’t appear on many Big 12 schedules, though now that I’ve mentioned it, someone will get the bright idea.

I thought it might be fun to go back and look at what I wrote about some of these encounters.

First, Stafford.

ATHENS, Ga. -- Mike Gundy and his posse trotted into the bowels of Sanford Stadium at halftime Saturday night, and the mood was upbeat. Definitely upbeat.

“We were feeling really good,” said quarterback Bobby Reid.

In this strange land of Southern football, where coeds dress to the nines and a band from Dixie plays a fight song culled from the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and tailgating is squeezed into every little corner of a campus that is all trees and hills and creeks, the Oklahoma State Cowboys were holding their own against mighty Georgia on ESPN2.

OSU trailed only by seven points and had given up a free touchdown, courtesy of a wild punt snap. Victory seemed possible.

Then came the second half. Then came reality. Then came the Cowboys turning into the not-ready-for-prime-time players.

Georgia routed State 35-14, and the sting came on offense. The Cowboys, down 21-14 halftime, were blanked in the second half. An offense expected to keep OSU in any game didn’t keep OSU in the first game of what seemed to be a promising 2007 season but must wait for such confirmation.

“We’re not ready for the big time,” Gundy said.

My column didn’t even mention Stafford, though I did a little halftime analysis that praised a big-time throw by Stafford. Stafford that night completed 18 of 24 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns, no interceptions.

Nineteen months later, Stafford was the overall No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, and after toiling 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions, Stafford has a fresh start with the Rams.

Two years after that night among the coeds dressed to the nines, Georgia came to Stillwater and received a 24-10 pasting at the hands of the Cowboys. OSU was ready for the big time.

For Mahomes, I chose the famous 66-59 OU victory in 2016, when Baker Mayfield and Mahomes staged a duel in Lubbock that will live forever in college football lore.

LUBBOCK, Texas – Mike Stoops walked into Jones Stadium's catacomb interview room Saturday night with crooked tie, ruffled collar and ashen face. His demeanor bluer than his periwinkle jacket.

And the enormity of OU's defensive collapse had not even yet sunk in. No way that it could.

You can't process 59 points, 854 total yards, 42 first downs and two dozen busted blood vessels that quickly. But Stoops knew enough to know it was historic and horrific. That OU's 66-59 victory over Texas Tech would live for decades in Sooner memories. That despite the win, two sobering verdicts were delivered.

Both OU's Big 12 title hopes and Mike Stoops' future as his brother's defensive coordinator took a hit in the wave of Tech touchdowns.

"It's unacceptable at so many levels, I can't even begin to try to define it to you all," Mike Stoops said.

How did the Sooner defense ever reach this point? How could it be part of such a distortion of the sport? Part of a game with 125 combined points, the most ever in an OU football game?

Part of a game with 17 offensive touchdowns, with no stops in the final 29 minutes? Part of a game with 1,708 total yards, the most ever in a major college football game?

This was crazier than OU 82, Colorado 42 back in 1980. More revealing than OU 50, West Virginia 49 back in 2012...

By October 2016, there was no reason to wax famously about Mahomes. He was a known commodity in the Big 12. A passer extraordinaire who trumped any of the previous Tech gunslingers.

Turns out, that beleaguered 2016 defense didn’t impede the Sooners from winning the Big 12. But two Octobers later, a similar game – against a quarterback nowhere in Mahomes’ league – ended Mike Stoops’ time as defensive coordinator.

Finally, Burrow.

ATLANTA -- The Peach Bowl scoreboard had yet to short-circuit from so many LSU points. The Sooners trailed by only seven. I know, I know; seems like a long time ago.

But even then, late first quarter Saturday, this national semifinal felt squishy. Things coming easy for the Tigers. Nothing easy for Oklahoma. Honestly, this Peach Bowl felt like the Southern Cal Orange Bowl, even at 14-7.

And soon enough arrived empirical evidence. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow was running for his life, which happened rarely on a night the Sooner lights went out in Georgia.

But OU’s Kenneth Murray chased Burrow from the pocket, and fellow linebacker David Ugwoegbu made Burrow flee for the sideline, where he cocked his arm to toss the ball, apparently into the seats.

Except for Burrow and LSU, this was a magical game to go with a magical season. So Burrow launched a pass vertically instead of horizontally. Right down the sideline. And sure enough, LSU tight end Thaddeus Moss, not Tre Brown or any other Sooner in the general vicinity, came down with the ball. Twenty-four yard gain. First down.

Three plays later came the third of Burrow’s seven first-half touchdown passes. And here we go again, said the collective Sooner Nation.

LSU routed OU 63-28, burning the Sooners the way Tecumseh burned this Old South city, and nobody could be blamed for thinking of that USC Orange Bowl, won 55-19 by the Trojans in the 2004 national title game.

Except this was worse. That was 38-10 at halftime. This was 49-14. That was a bad day at Black Rock. This was a cold-slap reminder of how far the Sooners are from winning one of these things.

Well, I got that last part right. We’ve spent the better part of two seasons talking and writing about what a team for the ages LSU had.

Which maybe was correct. But maybe what the Tigers had was a quarterback for the ages. Burrow looks the equal of Mahomes and Buffalo’s Josh Allen in being pro football’s new superstars.

Let’s get to the predictions:

Bengals at Chiefs: Kansas City 31-26. KC becomes just the eighth team to put its franchise in four straight conference title games, joining the Patriots (2011-18), Raiders (1973-77 and 1967-70), Eagles (2001-04), Cowboys (1992-95 and 1970-73), Bills (1990-93). If you like to compare, Buffalo went 4-0 in those games, New England 5-3, Dallas 3-1 ('90s) and 2-2, Raiders 1-4 ('67-70) and 1-3, and Eagles 1-3.

49ers at Rams: San Francisco 20-17. Last Sunday, four teams played. Two deserved to win. Two deserved to lose. But since the Rams and the Buccaneers were the two that deserved to lose, one had to advance. The 49ers are a hearty bunch.

Last week: 1-3. Season: 176-102-1.

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The List: Most frequent Thunder alma maters

The Thunder is in its 14th season; 132 players have taken the court for OKC. Which college basketball programs have contributed the most players to the Thunder’s all-time roster?

Here are the 11 schools that have produced at least three players who played for the Thunder:

Kentucky 9: Nazr Mohammed, DeAndre Liggins, Daniel Orton, Dakari Johnson, Patrick Patterson, Hamidou Diallo, Nerlens Noel, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Miller.

Connecticut 5: Kevin Ollie, Jeremy Lamb, Hasheem Thabeet, Caron Butler, Daniel Hamilton.

Kansas 4: Nick Collison, Cole Aldrich, Markieff Morris, Syi Mykhailiuk.

Syracuse 4: Etan Thomas, Dion Waiters, Jerami Grant, Carmelo Anthony.

Texas 3: Kevin Durant, Royal Ivey, D.J. Augustin.

North Carolina 3: Raymond Felton, Tony Bradley, Justin Jackson.

Marquette 3: Lazar Hayward, Steve Novak, Deonte Burton*.

Maryland 3: Joe Smith, Chris Wilcox, Aaron Wiggins.

Florida 3: Corey Brewer, Al Horford, Tre Mann.

Virginia 3: Devon Hall, Ty Jerome, Mamadi Diakite.

Wake Forest 3: Ish Smith, Chris Paul, Jaylen Hoard.

*-transferred to Iowa State.

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Mailbag: Thunder tanking almost over?

The Thunder’s future remains unclear to many fans.

Ben: “I was a season ticket holder from the beginning until Covid. Last night (Monday) was my first game in two years. I’m thinking about getting tickets again, but I’m not interested as long as we are in tanking mode. Is this the last season to tank?”

Tramel: I don’t know. Much of it depends on how the lottery balls fall. However, either way, we are close to the end of tanking. But not necessarily the end of losing.

The Thunder is approaching the time when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort and Josh Giddey are going to be too good to tank.

Still, even with some good lottery luck, the Thunder won't win big immediately. It will take a series of steps.

But I think we're past the worst of the tanking. If the Thunder gets another quality rookie – or even a potential superstar rookie – the losses still will come, because of the youth. But talent eventually wins out.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at btramel@oklahoman.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Big Ten Conference considering Big 12 model of dropping divisions

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