Lon Kruger has seen his Oklahoma team play its way to the program’s first ranking in The Associated Press men’s college basketball poll in two years.
Keeping that spot won’t be easy, either.
The 24th-ranked Sooners face two top-10 opponents this week as part of the AP Top 25 schedule. First up is Tuesday’s trip to fifth-ranked Texas, which comes as Longhorns coach Shaka Smart announced he is in isolation after a positive COVID-19 test. Oklahoma then hosts No. 9 Alabama in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Saturday.
Oklahoma is early into a stretch of seven matchups against ranked opponents in eight games.
“It’s of course been really difficult every year,” Kruger said Monday. “This year may be a little more extreme, I guess, if you consider the number of teams ranked or nearly ranked. Yeah, it’s a tough league.”
The Sooners (9-4, 5-3 Big 12) opened that stretch with a weekend win against No. 15 Kansas. After this week, Oklahoma is scheduled to visit No. 10 Texas Tech (next Monday) with games ahead against No. 2 Baylor (Feb. 10), No. 11 West Virginia (Feb. 16) and a rematch with the Longhorns (Feb. 16).
The defenses stand out to Kruger, now in his 10th season with Oklahoma. The Big 12 has a national-best five of the top 20 teams in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metrics — led by Baylor allowing 86.9 points per 100 possessions — and Oklahoma’s current stretch includes all five.
“I think the defenses this year across the league are just a little better, from top to bottom than they’ve ever been,” Kruger said. “And they’ve always been good.”
Alabama made the biggest jump in Monday’s latest poll, climbing nine spots to earn the program’s highest ranking since last cracking the top 10 in January 2007. That came after the Crimson Tide won nine straight games entering Tuesday’s visit from Kentucky, which lost the first meeting to the Crimson Tide by 20 points at home.
Coach Nate Oats said Monday that his players “deserve to be ranked in the top 10” with the way they’ve been playing, as well as their chemistry and leadership.
“We’re trying to keep the guys hungry,” senior swingman Herbert Jones said. “So we don’t feel like we’re being hunted. We’re still doing the hunting.”
St. Louis is set to return from an extended pause.
The No. 22 Billikens haven’t played since beating Kansas City on Dec. 23. They paused team activities Dec. 30 and had seven straight games postponed, though they returned to practices Friday and are set to return at home against Dayton on Tuesday night followed by Friday’s game at Richmond.
The Billikens cracked the AP Top 25 earlier this month for the first time since the 2013-14 season and have hovered between No. 22 and 25 while being on hold.
RANKED VS. RANKED
The Atlantic Coast and Big Ten conferences each have marquee matchups between ranked teams this week.
No. 7 Iowa visits No. 19 Illinois on Friday in the Big Ten, while No. 8 Virginia visits instate rival and 20th-ranked Virginia Tech on Saturday in the ACC. The Cavaliers and Hokies had their first meeting postponed from Jan. 2.
Gonzaga and Baylor have been ranked 1-2 atop all 10 polls this season.
The Zags, who earned 61 of 64 first-place votes in Monday’s poll, have road games at San Diego on Thursday and Pepperdine on Saturday in West Coast Conference play. The Bears, who earned the other three votes, host Kansas State on Wednesday, followed by Auburn on Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
Boise State (13-1) was the leading vote-getter for unranked teams. The Broncos have games at Colorado State on Wednesday and Friday as they try to remain unbeaten in the Mountain West Conference.
The No. 2 vote-getter among unranked teams was Drake in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Bulldogs (13-0) play back-to-back games at Missouri State on Tuesday and Wednesday after having five straight games postponed since beating Southern Illinois on Jan. 4.
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