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OU men’s basketball: Umoja Gibson returns home, Elijah Harkless’ growing confidence — 3 takeaways from Sooners’ press conference

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Mo Gibson

Junior guard Umoja Gibson defends a West Virginia opponent Jan. 2.

The Sooners are coming off an upset win over then-No. 9 West Virginia, but will have no breaks this week.

OU continues its streak of consecutive top-10 opponents when it faces No. 2 Baylor and No. 6 Kansas on the road within a four-day stretch from Jan. 6–9. Before their road matchups, the Sooners’ press conference Monday touched on the difficult games ahead, the recent breakout performance by junior guard Umoja Gibson and the growing role of junior guard Elijah Harkless.

Here’s 3 takeaways from the press conference:

Road matchups ahead

No. 2 Baylor and No. 6 Kansas have a combined record of 17-2. Kansas owns both losses, but has fallen to Top 5 teams in No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 4 Texas.

Both teams have been impressive this season, as Baylor is second in the NCAA in scoring offense and leads in 3-point field goal percentage at 43.81 percent. Kansas has already played against six ranked teams, going 4-2 in those games.

The Bears’ shooting prowess could be a problem for the Sooners. They’ve struggled defending the 3 this season, giving up a school-record 19 3s against Xavier and allowing West Virginia to shoot over 58 percent from 3 in their most recent game.

“The Big 12 is pretty much like that every year,” OU head coach Lon Kruger said in Monday’s press conference. “Not only do you get three top-10 teams back-to-back-to-back, but still, (for) guys it’s pretty easy that they’re excited to play.

“They know how tough the league is, and they know how every night is going to be in the Big 12. And they know if you don’t bring it, it’s probably not going to end up well. … We’re in the middle of one of those trenches.”

Gibson returns home

OU’s game against Baylor will be a familiar place for Gibson.

He attended University High School in Waco, Texas, and Baylor was a team that Gibson wanted to play for, although he was a 0-star recruit and only had offers from North Texas and Texas State, per Rivals.com.

“It’s just a blessing to play against them,” Gibson said. “That’s who everyone roots for back at home is Baylor. It’s just a blessing to play in front of my people back at home, and especially in the hometown city. It doesn’t get better than that.”

Gibson is coming off a 29-point game with a career-high eight 3s, and he was named Player of the Week by NCAA March Madness and was the Newcomer and Player of the Week from the Big 12 on Monday.

The North Texas transfer’s hot shooting stems from the work he put in at home with his high school basketball coach.

“He would send me clips of Steph Curry,” Gibson said of his high school coach Ricardo Felix. “That’s how I really got my shot better was working with coach Felix, putting up a lot of reps and repetition.

“Once you put in the work for repetition, and actually show in the game, and then I got addicted to doing it, each and every day, and I think I improved from each season.”

Elijah Harkless finding role on team

Back on Dec. 16, Harkless made his 2020 debut after the NCAA passed a waiver for all transfer athletes to gain immediate eligibility.

Harkless, a junior who transferred from Cal State Northridge of the Big West Conference, has found himself playing important minutes down the stretch for the Sooners as he gets accustomed to the game after his late start to the season. The 6-foot-3 guard found himself in the game against No. 9 West Virginia with under four minutes to go, showing the trust Kruger has in his game.

“He’s gonna keep getting better and better,” Kruger said. “He’s going to get more and more comfortable. … (He's) still getting his feet wet a little bit, but (I'm) excited about the progress he’s gonna make the next couple months.”

Despite scoring just 2 points against West Virginia, Harkless had two big steals and a block in 15 minutes of play off the bench.

“I think it’s great that coach has trusted me to be on the court in the last four minutes against a Top 10 team in the country,” Harkless said. “It was against my first ranked team so I thank the guys for that.”

The Sooners tip off at 8 p.m. Wednesday at No. 2 Baylor on ESPN 2.

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