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Winning turnover battle Oklahoma's best chance at upset

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Kansas guard Ben McLemore loses a rebound to Oklahoma forward Romero Osby, right, during the first half on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013 at Allen Fieldhouse. At left is Oklahoma guard Je'lon Hornbreak.

Kansas guard Ben McLemore loses a rebound to Oklahoma forward Romero Osby, right, during the first half on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013 at Allen Fieldhouse. At left is Oklahoma guard Je'lon Hornbreak. by Nick Krug

Team: Oklahoma
Record: 14-7
KenPom (Ken Pomeroy) Ranking: 57
All statistics from KenPom.com unless otherwise noted

3 Strengths

Avoiding fouls: Oklahoma enters Saturday's game as the top team in Big 12 play when it comes to defensive free throw rate, as opponents have averaged just 16 free throws per game against the Sooners in conference play. This will be an interesting subplot to watch, as KU has the Big 12's best offensive free throw rate in league play while averaging 25 free throws per game. KU could definitely use chances to score at the line with the offense struggling the way it has recently.

Turnovers: Oklahoma continues to be above-average in both forcing and limiting turnovers. The Sooners are 100th nationally in offensive turnover percentage and 139th in defensive turnover percentage. Turnovers have been one of KU's biggest weaknesses in Big 12 play, as the Jayhawks rank seventh in the conference in offensive turnover percentage and eighth in defensive turnover percentage. If OU wins, it'll probably because the Sooners took advantage of getting extra shots they received by dominating in this area.

Offensive rebounding: Though this aspect hasn't been as good in the last month or so, OU still is strong on the offensive glass. The Sooners grab 34.7 percent of their missed shots, which ranks 81st nationally. OU showed its potential on the glass in its last game against Iowa State, notching 22 offensive rebounds and 23 second-chance points in an 83-64 road loss. KU did a nice job of defensive rebounding in its first matchup against OU, as the Sooners grabbed offensive rebounds on 28 percent of their missed shots.

3 Weaknesses

Drawing fouls: OU ranks eighth in Big 12 play in offensive free throw rate, averaging just 18 free throw attempts per game. This makes sense considering the fact that the Sooners shoot a lot of jump shots. According to Hoop-Math.com, 39 percent of OU's field goal attempts are two-point jumpers, which is well above the NCAA average of 33 percent. Unless the Sooners have a wide-open layup, they're often hesitant to attack the rim, instead settling for many short jumpers.

• Three-point shooting: Oklahoma doesn't rely much on three-point shots, and there's good reason for that: The Sooners don't have many gifted outside shooters. OU has made just 30.9 percent of its threes this year (281st nationally), and that number looks even worse when realizing the Sooners are choosy with the outside shots they take. Only two OU players have attempted more than 50 threes this year: Steven Pledger (40 of 115, 34.8 percent) and Buddy Hield (19 of 65, 29.2 percent).

• Blocking shots: Though OU has good size, it's not a team that challenges inside shots well. Part of this could go back to the defensive strategy of avoiding fouls. The Sooners have blocked just 7.1 percent of opponents' twos in Big 12 play, which ranks ninth in the conference.

3 Players to Watch

Six-foot-8 forward Romero Osby (No. 24) remains the best player in the conference that nobody talks about. The senior hasn't played as well since his 12-point, 4-for-16 performance against KU on Jan. 26, but he still is easily the Sooners' best offensive weapon. Osby does a great job of using pump-fakes to get defenders in the air, drawing 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes (63rd nationally) while posting the nation's 104th-best free throw rate. He's a 79.8-percent free throw shooter, so fouling him often results in two points. Osby almost never turns it over (105th in turnover rate) and is a solid offensive and defensive rebounder and an above-average two-point jump-shooter. Osby struggled going against KU center Jeff Withey's length in the first matchup, so I'm guessing we see him try to attack Withey a different way Saturday.

Six-foot-9 forward Amath M'Baye (No. 22) is an athletic post player who thrives at the rim. According to Hoop-Math, M'Baye has made 84 percent of his close shots this year, which dwarfs the NCAA average (61 percent). M'Baye also thrives on the offensive glass, where he pulls down 9.7 percent of the available offensive boards (381st nationally). M'Baye does have some flaws offensively, though, turning it over at a high rate while making a below-average number of his two-point jump-shots. M'Baye also has clanked nearly all of the limited three-pointers he has taken (2-for-15 accuracy, 13 percent).

Six-foot-4 guard Steven Pledger (No. 2) is OU's only real threat from the outside. As mentioned above, he's made 35 percent of his threes this year, though that's probably below his true talent level, as he was a 42-percent three-point shooter a year ago. Pledger is purely a spot-up shooter behind the arc, as 89 percent of his threes this year have been assisted. He's struggled in his last two games, combining to go 0-for-7 from three against Kansas State and Iowa State. Pledger also rarely turns it over, which makes him a solid offensive player for the Sooners.

Prediction

I was off by a mere 32 points with my last prediction, so yeah, there's that.

I do think KU will win this game, though. Though the Jayhawks didn't play well against TCU, a huge issue was simply shooting. KU made 11 of 27 layups against TCU (41 percent), a number that will be tough to replicate the rest of this season.

The Jayhawks' interior defense bothered the Sooners in the first matchup, and I'm not sure what OU can do to overcome that. The Sooners aren't a team that can rely on outside shooting to beat KU, and because they don't draw many whistles, it's unlikely they'll be able to pull Withey out of the game with foul trouble.

Most likely, OU will pull up for a lot of two-point jump-shots, hoping that an above-average number of those attempts go in.

KU should feel good about its chances if it can keep turnovers down to force OU to run its offense with Withey inside.

From there, it'll be up to the Jayhawks to make those layups that they missed against TCU. The law of averages (KU has made 64 percent of its close shots this year) would suggest a bounceback is likely.

Kansas 66, Oklahoma 59

Hawk to Rock

After struggling with his last two defensive matchups, this feels like a game where Travis Releford will thrive. Not only does he have a history of big games against OU (28 points in his last game at Lloyd Noble Center), but he also should be focused on his important defensive assignment, which will be to limit the shot attempts and makes of OU's Pledger. Look for Releford to get back to scoring in transition as well, as he's averaged just 4.5 points and three field goal attempts in his last two games. I'll say the senior gets back to double-figure scoring against OU on Saturday.

Predictions tally
19-3 record, 267 points off (12.1 points off/game)

Hawk to Rock
SE Missouri: Perry Ellis (2nd in KUsports.com ratings)
Michigan State: Jeff Withey (4th)
Chattanooga: Andrew White III (10th)
Washington State: Ben McLemore (4th)
Saint Louis: Perry Ellis (7th)
San Jose State: Travis Releford (2nd)
Oregon State: Jeff Withey (2nd)
Colorado: Elijah Johnson (4th)
Belmont: Kevin Young (6th)
Richmond: Jeff Withey (1st)
Ohio State: Ben McLemore (1st)
American: Jeff Withey (5th)
Temple: Kevin Young (2nd)
Iowa State: Travis Releford (4th)
Texas Tech: Ben McLemore (4th)
Baylor: Jeff Withey (4th)
Texas: Elijah Johnson (8th)
Kansas State: Kevin Young (6th)
Oklahoma: Travis Releford (3rd)
West Virginia: Jeff Withey (2nd)
Oklahoma State: Ben McLemore (1st)
TCU: Kevin Young (3rd)
Average: 3.9th in KUsports.com ratings

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