It feels forever ago. It's barely been a month.
For a game since called, at various points and by various people, the best game in Allen Fieldhouse history, the loudest college basketball crowd Dick Vitale had ever heard (and he's heard a few), the best individual performance in a losing effort (Buddy Hield) in memory, the best individual performance by any player in years period (also Hield), and the best regular-season game ever played, this may be the last remaining praise we can add to the pile:
Kansas 109, Oklahoma 106 feels like it happened years ago.
It already scans as a fuzzy artifact of nostalgia. A game we watched as kids. A Vaseline-lens-covered ESPN Classic with outdated chyrons, the kind you run across late at night when nothing else is on, the kind with an informal nickname. The Junior Sky Hook. The Flu Game. The Shot. It typically takes years or decades to add an entry to that pantheon. Jan. 4's bolt of basketball lightning ascended to the heavens immediately -- so fast it earned legendary status weeks before its scheduled rematch arrived.
Saturday, at 2:30 p.m. ET (ESPN), that rematch arrives. With it comes fundamental, awkward questions: Can KU-OU Round 2 possibly live up to what came before? Is there any way it won't seem disappointing by comparison?
Can the lightning really strike twice?
One thing's for sure: Conditions in the atmosphere have changed. On Jan. 4, Kansas was ranked No. 1 in the country. Oklahoma was No. 2. That alone provided the game with the type of magnitude that Saturday's will struggle to reenact -- it was possible, at the time, to believe that you really were watching the two best teams in the country.
Few would make that claim now. In the weeks since, Kansas dropped its first three road games in Big 12 play (West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Iowa State), all by double-digits. The Jayhawks are on pace to finish a Big 12 season ranked outside the top two in either offensive or defensive efficiency (where they're currently fourth and third, respectively) for the first time since 2005. Kansas isn't far off the efficiency margin lead, and its win against West Virginia on Tuesday brought it back into a three-way first-place standings tie. Yet after Wayne Selden Jr.'s slump, Bill Self's criticism of his guards, and at least one players-only meeting, KU still seems more of a work in progress than it did 38 days ago. A work in progress with Final Four ambitions, sure. But a work in progress all the same.
Oklahoma's stock hasn't fallen much, if any, since it nearly upended KU in Lawrence, Kansas. Then again, the Sooners suffered their own third conference loss on the road at K-State last week. Then, on Monday, they barely snuck past a surging Texas team at home, thanks, of course, to Hield. The runaway Wooden Award favorite has kept on scoring (and shooting) at an obscene and otherworldly efficient rate. Since the first meeting with KU, he has added more marquee moments -- 32 points in a comeback win at LSU, the final 12 (and 27 total, plus the winning 3) in Monday's win against Texas -- building on the reputation he established in January.
Indeed, if there is any hope of Saturday's game living up to its predecessor, it may be summarized as such: Because Buddy Hield is involved.
Even the venue lacks the gravitas of the original. With all due respect to the Lloyd Noble Center, which is a very loud and boisterous building in its own right, it's no Allen Fieldhouse. Under Self, the Jayhawks have turned the already difficult process of winning at the Phog into an almost mythological undertaking. There is no such aura in Norman, Oklahoma; winning at Lloyd Noble hardly makes you Siegfried.
Don't get us wrong: These are still two of the few national title contenders of the 2015-16 season, if not the top two they might have seemed in January. Kansas' Big 12 title streak -- 11 years and running -- is still very much on the line. The tactics and types of basketball on display, the punches and counters between Lon Kruger's uptempo perimeter attack and Self's defense will undoubtedly be Saturday's most fascinating. It's going to be a great game.
Yet even a great game must, inevitably, pale in the wake of one of the greatest ever, staged in the sport's preeminent temple.
If Saturday somehow overcomes that -- if at 10 p.m. ET we're arguing over which game was better -- then Kansas and Oklahoma will have collaborated on the greatest sequel since "The Godfather: Part II." Lightning will have struck the same place twice. Not likely. But fingers crossed.
Best chance to change the narrative once and for all
Panic was in the air. Just two weeks ago, after Jan. 25's perfectly acceptable road loss at Miami, the prevailing postseason-adjacent question about Duke was not, as in most seasons, how high the Blue Devils' eventual NCAA tournament seed might be -- this is a program, by the way, that since 1997 has been a No. 3-seed or higher in every tournament but one (Duke was a No. 6 seed in 2007) -- or Duke's place in the national title hierarchy. Instead, when Duke's record fell to 4-4 in ACC play with a pair of ultra-rare consecutive home losses and a subsequent departure from the AP top 25 (also for the first time since 2007!) everyone was thinking differently. What if -- gasp -- Duke didn't make the tournament at all? Unlikely? Sure. But not inconceivable, given the four-game stretch that awaited the Blue Devils in mid-February: Louisville, Virginia, at North Carolina, at Louisville.
On Monday, Duke opened that 12-day stretch with a tidy home win against the Cardinals. Next up is Virginia -- and while the Cavaliers have more than shaken off their early ACC road woes (and tightened up on the defensive end in the process), this nonetheless remains a perfectly winnable game for a clearly flawed, but still offensively gifted Blue Devils team. And if they do win it? Expect a sudden, dramatic and warranted return to narrative normalcy.
Best chance to start unveiling that offense
For all of its offensive talent, positional flexibility and balance, the idea that Maryland has built its 22-3 record on the back of its defense still feels somewhat counterintuitive. Yet it's true: The Terps have been the Big Ten's best per-possession defense in league play this season, just ahead of Indiana and Iowa. Its offense -- which turns the ball over more than every Big Ten team but one and is making just 31 percent of its 3s in conference play -- ranks just eighth.
"I keep saying our offense is going to start playing at a high level at some point," coach Mark Turgeon said after Saturday's win against Purdue. "The good thing is we continue to win -- and we haven't gotten there yet."
Maryland's sporadic flashes of offensive brilliance make it clear there is potential still to be tapped in College Park, Maryland. It's a scary thought. Scarier for Terps fans is the idea that with just six regular-season games left -- starting with Wisconsin's visit Saturday -- this team might be running short on time.
Weirdest, most unexpected stakes
In the summer, our best early guess at preseason player of the year -- or at least the best guess not named Ben Simmons -- was Gonzaga's Kyle Wiltjer. Wiltjer had put up ridiculous numbers a season ago, and he would be playing on a consistently ranked, national title-contending team. It was the safe, smart prediction. And SMU? A great team returning most of its core stars looking to avenge last season's brutal first-round-robbing goaltending call against UCLA. Now look: The Bulldogs are at serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament, Wiltjer is nobody's POY, and now this calendar-circled February nonconference road trip features a home team that can't even play in the NCAA tournament and a road team desperate to move up on the bubble. Bizarre.
Best chance to see if Kentucky has turned the proverbial corner for, like, the sixth time
This feels like another good status update on the Wildcats, doesn't it? From Dec. 3 to Jan. 16, UK lost one game for every two wins, and in that exact configuration. It's not often the two steps forward, one step back metaphor plays out so literally, but John Calipari's team managed it. And usually the difference was as simple as whether it was at home or on the road. Then, in late January, came three straight impressive wins, plus a near-miss in overtime at Allen Fieldhouse. All of a sudden it looked like UK was back on track. Then, a few days later came a road loss at Tennessee. On Saturday, UK dominated Florida. On Tuesday, it destroyed Georgia. And now this. There's a pattern here. Can Calipari's team break it?
Second-best rematch of the week
There's no topping the salivary sequel that is "Oklahoma-Kansas 2: Electric Buddyloo," a fact of life that basically guarantees USC and Arizona's rematch will be overlooked come Sunday. Neither team being as good as KU or OU doesn't help either, of course, but still: The last time these two teams played, USC's 103-101 win wasn't decided until the fourth overtime. Just sayin'.