Oklahoma-LSU Preview

Buddy Hield bypassed last year's NBA draft and returned to Oklahoma for his senior season to hone his game and compete for a national championship.

If it weren't for the league's age restrictions, Ben Simmons likely would've been a high selection in June and never wound up at LSU.

Now they're the front-runners for national player of the year accolades and will go head-to-head as Hield's top-ranked Sooners visit Simmons and the Tigers in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Saturday.

Part of Hield's decision was based on improving his draft stock, and there's little question that he's succeeded. The reigning Big 12 player of the year has increased his scoring average from 17.4 points per game as a junior to 25.9, which ranks second in the nation.

The improvement in his shooting has been staggering, up to 53 percent from the floor from 41.2 and 52.3 percent from 3-point range from 35.9 last season. Hield's most impressive effort in helping the Sooners (17-2) ascend to the top ranking came Jan. 4, when he scored a career-high 46 points in a triple-overtime loss at then-No. 1 Kansas.

Then there's Simmons, already anointed the future No. 1 pick in the draft following what is basically assured to be his only season with the Tigers (13-7). The versatile 6-foot-10 swingman has lived up to the hype, averaging 19.8 points, ranking fourth in the nation with 12.7 rebounds per game and averaging 4.9 assists.

Despite his numbers, LSU remains a fringe NCAA Tournament team that could use a victory over the nation's No. 1 team to boost its resume. It has won four of its last five, though, and fended off a late rally to beat Georgia 89-85 on Tuesday.

Simmons finished with 22 points and 14 rebounds, while Tim Quarterman also scored 22 and hit 13 of 19 free throws. Freshman Antonio Blakeney had 12 points off the bench, and coach Johnny Jones is counting on Simmons getting similar support in this contest.

''ESPN wants to promote the next generation of guys going to the NBA. They are going to hype up the game as me versus Buddy,'' Simmons said, ''but it's not me against him. I won't be guarding him.''

Part of the reason Oklahoma has been so good is because Hield is surrounded with plenty of talent. Jordan Woodard is averaging 14.9 points, Isaiah Cousins is averaging 13.1 and Ryan Spangler adds 10.7 and 9.7 rebounds per game.

Hield scored 30 points and Cousins added 19 in Tuesday's 91-67 rout of Texas Tech. The Sooners shot 52.2 percent from 3-point range to up their nation-leading accuracy behind the arc to 46.7.

"It's not going to be a Ben or Buddy one-on-one. It's going to be one of (these) particular schools," Jones said. "Both of these guys are seasoned and have been in enough games and understand the big picture. They will both play the same and at a high level in terms of competing. It's going to be a hard-fought team effort, not an individual."

Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger has been impressed with not only how Hield has handled the attention, but also how the team has relatively ignored its position atop the poll.

Going on the road to a raucous crowd in Baton Rouge certainly will be a challenge, especially since Oklahoma has lost a pair of road games in Big 12 play. The Sooners survived their latest test away from home, though, beating then-No. 13 Baylor on Saturday.

"Their focus has been unbelievable," Kruger said. "They haven't been distracted. I haven't heard a conversation about the rankings at all - ever - from anyone.

"It's only the beginning. There's a long way to go and a lot of work to do. We still have to make a lot of progress."

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