Who said regular-season games don't matter in college basketball?
No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Oklahoma (or vice versa, if you prefer the coaches poll to the AP Top 25) delivered one of the most captivating non-tournament games in recent memory Monday night with the Jayhawks prevailing at home in triple overtime by a score of 109-106.
From the moment Michigan State lost to Iowa on Tuesday night, I was worried that the hype for this game would be too much. We spent the next four days hoping that Kansas and Oklahoma would hold serve at home over the weekend to give us our first game between the top two teams in the AP Top 25 since the 2013 Champions Classic. And once they won their games Saturday, the No. 1 vs. No. 2 propaganda began in earnest. The new AP Top 25 poll dropped this afternoon, and every sports outlet under the sun pushed out data about the history of No. 1 vs. No. 2.
Yet it wasn't nearly enough to prepare us for what we were about to witness.
Buddy Hield—arguably already the front-runner for National Player of the Year before the game even began—had perhaps the best individual game of the past decade.
(Poor Brice Johnson and his 39 points and 23 rebounds for North Carolina against Florida State held that distinction for a whole three hours.)
Hield had 46 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, even though Frank Mason III played some absolutely phenomenal defense against him. It's really weird to be impressed by the defender when someone has an offensive game like that, but Mason couldn't have possibly done much more when Hield was pulling stunts like this, per ClippitUsers Sports:
Buddy Hield step-back three College Basketball: Oklahoma at Kansas ESPN https://t.co/6u10sninbB https://t.co/MQEa9I42Wm1/5/2016, 3:47:42 AM
Even though he was red-hot, Hield attempted only 23 of Oklahoma's 88 shots, as Mason denied him the ball time and again throughout the second half and all three overtimes.
According to Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star, Kansas head coach Bill Self implied after the game that without Mason's defense, the Jayhawks might have been on the wrong end of a historic performance:
Rustin Dodd @rustindodd
Bill Self on Buddy Hield: "He could have got 60 if Frank wasn't guarding him."1/5/2016, 5:57:01 AM
Mason struggled on offense, shooting just 5-of-20 from the field, but I'd like to see you give everything you've got on defense for 53 minutes and still have enough legs on your shot to drain jumpers. In his stead, Perry Ellis (27), Wayne Selden Jr. (21) and Devonte' Graham (20) carried the scoring load for the Jayhawks, who went over the century mark for a second straight game and a fourth time this season.
And for the Sooners, let's not forget the help that Hield got from Jordan Woodard. The junior played almost every minute before fouling out in the third overtime and shot 6-of-9 from three-point range en route to 27 points. He was a huge part of two of the nation's three best three-point shooting teams combining to go 27-of-55 (49.1 percent) from beyond the arc.
But it almost felt like the non-scorers made the biggest impacts throughout the course of the game.
Kansas' Jamari Traylor and Oklahoma's Khadeem Lattin aren't renowned for their offensive abilities—if anything, the power forwards have been considered the biggest liabilities for the top two teams in the country—but that duo seemed to be everywhere Monday night, blocking shots, banging bodies and selling out for loose balls.
Really, with the exception of Isaiah Cousins having a difficult shooting night (2-of-14) for Oklahoma and Selden struggling in the first half because of foul trouble, it felt like everyone on both teams brought their A-game to defend their status atop the nation's polls.
So now for the big question: What did we learn about these teams?
It was a blast to kick back and watch these heavyweights go blow for blow, but what does it mean for bracket-filling season?
For starters, it's abundantly clear Oklahoma has one of the best starting fives in the country, but the Sooners might also be more dependent on their starting five than any other team.
Early on in the season, it was anybody's guess as to whether Lattin, Dante Buford or Akolda Manyang would lock down the power forward job, but Lattin put a nice capstone on a solid month of basketball with 46 minutes, 10 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks against Kansas. With Lattin's consistently strong effort and improving game, I'd take head coach Lon Kruger's starting five against any other.
But where does this team turn if someone gets injured or into foul trouble? Ryan Spangler hurt his knee in Saturday's win over Iowa State, and he still played 51 minutes against Kansas, because, well, the Sooners needed him to do so. In a 106-point, triple-overtime game in which one of its starters scored just four points, the Oklahoma bench had a combined five points in 35 minutes of action.
Especially for a team that takes (and makes) so many three-pointers, fatigue is something to watch out for as the season progresses. They may be 21-year-old kids, but playing 30 minutes per game for 35-plus games takes its toll. If they're still draining shots at a 45 percent clip in mid-March, though, the Sooners arguably have the best chance at winning the tournament.
On Kansas' side of the equation, there wasn't so much learned as it was reinforced. Mason and Traylor are invaluable defenders, Selden and Graham can stroke it with the best of them and Ellis has learned how to carry a team in his seemingly 10 years of playing college basketball.
In the minds of many, Kansas entered this game as the favorite to win the 2015-16 national championship. If you saw anything Monday night to change that, you weren't watching the same game as I was. These Jayhawks can really get after it on both ends of the court and withstand big runs and moments from the opposition without flinching.
We know these teams will meet again Feb. 13.
With all due respect to the likes of Iowa State, West Virginia and Baylor, we assume they'll meet for a third time in the Big 12 tournament championship game March 12.
And with any luck, we'll get to see a fourth and final showdown on either April 2 or 4—depending on whether the NCAA tournament selection committee puts them on a collision course for the Final Four or title game.
If the intensity and drama of those future pairings can even hold a candle to this first one, all the better.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves by focusing too much on March and April, because this was one hell of a January showdown. And with college football season all but wrapped up, the college basketball gods couldn't have picked a better time to have two heavyweights with tons of star power go toe-to-toe in one of the best environments in the country.
Welcome to basketball season, pigskin fans. Per usual, it's shaping up to be one heck of a ride.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.
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