January 24, 2015

Oklahoma's ascension to the top of the AP poll for the first time in 26 years might not last too long.

With another loss Saturday, the Sooners' hopes of their first Big 12 regular-season title in more than a decade could be slipping away as well.

The nation's top-ranked team has already found out how small the margin of error is in college basketball's most stacked conference, and now it faces the possibility of falling two games behind first-place Baylor should it come up short against the 13th-ranked Bears in Waco.

Five of Oklahoma's six Big 12 games have been decided by five points or fewer, which is more of a credit to how tough the conference is than an indictment of a team that's trying to enjoy being No. 1 for the first time since March 1990.

That perch will likely belong to someone else come Monday, but for now the Sooners (15-2, 4-2) have their work cut out for them simply to stay in the race for a league title they haven't won since 2005. Oklahoma is in a four-way tie for second after Monday's 82-77 loss at No. 19 Iowa State.

"That's Big 12 basketball," coach Lon Kruger said. "Every one of them's going to be tough."

Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins combined for 53 points and hit 11 of the Sooners' season-high 17 3s as the nation's most accurate team from long distance upped its percentage to 45.7. But aside from that starting backcourt, Oklahoma shot a combined 2 of 15 from inside the arc.

"We're a veteran team," Hield said. "We've got to do a better job closing games like this one out. We've got to come ready to play. Coach had us prepared to play, but me and Isaiah have to do a better job of getting everyone fighting."

Hield and Cousins totaled 39 points and hit a combined eight 3s in a 73-63 home win over Baylor last season, but were held to 20 points - Hield shot 6 of 17 and missed all seven 3s - in a 69-58 loss in Waco.

Baylor has won 15 straight at home dating to the last three of last season, though it had to put in 10 additional minutes of work Wednesday to tie the school record for consecutive wins at the 28-year-old Ferrell Center set from February 2010-January 2011. Al Freeman had all 11 of his points in two overtimes as the Bears held off Kansas State 79-72.

Baylor has won five straight since opening Big 12 play with a 102-74 loss at Kansas.

"Winning close games makes the difference between good years and average or bad years," coach Scott Drew said. "Al hadn't played his best basketball, but at the end of the game he really came up big."

Baylor assisted on 20 of its 28 field goals against the Wildcats, almost exactly at its 71.5 percent assist rate that's second in the nation. In the Bears' three losses, they've assisted on less than half of their field goals.

Oklahoma just so happens to be one of the nation's best at preventing the basketball from being shared. Sooners opponents have a 39.3 percent assist rate, bested only by No. 23 Kentucky.

Kruger's team can probably walk out of Waco with a win if it can match Baylor on the boards, though that's easier said than done. The Bears' plus-10.1 rebound differential is tied for 11th in the nation, but they didn't have the edge in any of their losses.

Baylor is 0-6 against No. 1 teams at home, though it hasn't faced one since Kansas in 1997.

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