Big 12 Summer Update: Oklahoma SoonersPosted by dnspewak on July 18th, 2012
In an effort to remind you that college basketball does in fact exist during the summer, Big 12 microsite writers Danny Spewak (@dspewak) and Jeremy Pfingsten (@jeremylp21) will roll out three summer updates per week during the next month. The goal is to compile every bit of news and information from the summer months for each team and package it into neat, easy-to-read capsules for your convenience. Next on the list — Danny’s update on Oklahoma.
2011-12 Record: 15-16 (5-13)
Lon Kruger isn’t used to losing. He reached a Final Four at Florida, an Elite Eight at Kansas State, and qualified for seven combined NCAA Tournaments at Illinois and UNLV. This man has been everywhere and won everywhere — well, except for that failed NBA experiment with the Atlanta Hawks — but his first season at Oklahoma did not fare so well. After making promising progress against a fairly weak non-conference slate, Kruger’s team fell flat in Big 12 play. His tactical ability and coaching expertise allowed a roster with a few decent parts to hang tough for the most part, but an eighth-place finish and a losing record will not sit well with Kruger this summer. This is not a program in turmoil anymore, though, no matter how bad the record looks from a year ago. Kruger will indoctrinate his first true recruiting class this summer to mix with the return of his entire starting lineup. His cast of newcomers include a few stud freshman and, most importantly, Wyoming transfer Amath M’Baye, who just might be the biggest story of the whole summer in Norman.
Summer Orientation: The early reviews on M’Baye are already flattering. The Wyoming transfer, who started every game as a sophomore in 2010-11, is an impact newcomer in every sense of the phrase. He brings worldly experience to the Sooners, having lived in France, Senegal, California and, of course, Wyoming. But his skills are as intriguing as his background. Kruger said M’Baye polished his game considerably as he sat out in 2011-12, improving as both a ball-handler and perimeter player. He’s no longer just a 6’9” forward with a mid-range game and post skills. Now, Kruger said he’s combining that tall, lanky frame with an ability to attack off the dribble and use his elite athleticism to his advantage. His teammates have had nothing but praise for M’Baye, who averaged 12.0 points per game as a sophomore, since he arrived on campus last year. Andrew Fitzgerald called him “very athletic and really competitive” while practicing against him last year, and says he “could be one of the best players in the Big 12.” It is easy to overrate Division I transfers, but M’Baye appears to add a new element to Oklahoma because of his unique versatility as an inside-outside type swingman.
With his prior experience in major college basketball, M’Baye will step on the court this fall with the most fanfare. But Kruger also must use this summer to tutor junior college transfer D.J. Bennett and four freshmen, including four-star shooting guard recruits Jelon Hornbeak and Buddy Hield. Bennett, a 6’9” center, will add depth to an already-stout frontcourt and Hornbeak and Hield will get a chance for minutes right away. Coupled with fellow freshmen Isaiah Cousins and C.J. Cole, Kruger said during the Big 12 teleconference he’s using the summer to “see which ones emerge and which ones step up to play the various roles from the start.” Using a new NCAA rule which allows him to work with his team during the offseason, Kruger has already seen bits and pieces of his newcomers’ talents. And Hield told Oklahoma’s website the practice is “getting my ready for the season… It’s shown me how the competition is going to be, because we go hard in our practices.” Even with all of the new faces, Kruger can take things slow with Bennett and the freshmen. As the next section alludes to, this team’s success will depend on the improvement of M’Baye and his veteran teammates, some of whom have endured three straight losing seasons under Jeff Capel and Kruger.
Looking Good: Kruger seems to like the group he has returning for 2011-12. Despite a 5-13 finish in the Big 12 and an overall losing record, Kruger called 2011-12 a “solid year” based on his team’s competitiveness and ability to at least hang with top opponents. This team actually swept Kansas State, scared Kansas a bit early in the league schedule and took Missouri to the wire. Kruger said it just did not have extra punch to actually finish games, but he’s optimistic a desperate group of seniors will play with a never-say-die attitude. “They’re motivated, they’ve worked hard in the spring and will continue to do that in the summer and fall, and I know they very badly want to take steps,” Kruger said.
Andrew Fitzgerald and Steven Pledger may be the most desperate. As the only fourth-year seniors, this final campaign represents a last chance to rebuild this program. These two have been through hell and back with the firing of Capel and the alleged improper benefits to former player Tiny Gallon, so this is their last off-season to make a true change to the culture of Oklahoma basketball. Pledger, the leading scorer who played terrific basketball for the first few months of the season before a plague of inconsistency, will once again take on the role as the primary scoring option. He’ll take the most shots and create the most offense as a scoring guard. Fitzgerald and fellow senior Romero Osby, who emerged as a strong offensive rebounder and low post option in his first season after transferring from Mississippi State, will have to lead the way in the scoring department for a team that sometimes suffered through nasty droughts in games last year.
This team runs on the shoulders of point guard Sam Grooms, though, who quietly enjoyed a stellar junior campaign as a juco transfer. Grooms took hold of the starting point guard job early in the season and never relented. His name is anonymous even among Big 12 circles, but he immediately established himself as one of the league’s top distributors and may be the most important player on this team.
If you’re counting, that’s four seniors on this team, all with different skill sets and talents to bring to the program. And then there’s Cameron Clark, the junior with sky-high potential who finally found his groove in February. Maybe we’re wrong on Grooms — maybe Clark is the most important player on this team. He’s a sleeper candidate with his 6’6” frame and scoring punch, the classic case of a guy who’s ready to break out of his shell at any moment. The development of Clark this off-season could help take the scoring load off Pledger, Fitzgerald and Osby. The difference between a 15-16 campaign and an NCAA Tournament berth in 2013 is simply consistency. The parts are there, and it’s up to Kruger and his senior class to get this program rolling again.
Roadblocks: After the Kelvin Sampson fiasco and Capel’s rocky ending, for once there are no major distractions in Norman right now. But there was one surprise for Kruger this summer. That’s the loss of backup point guard Carl Blair, who decided to transfer. Blair had lost his starting job to Grooms, but his departure leaves OU with only one true point guard on the roster (notice that link, by the way. Could Kruger welcome a few new football players to the team during the winter? “If that works out, great,” Kruger said. A very early development, though). That means there’s less room for Grooms to falter and a little more pressure on the senior. Kruger’s three seniors from last year also graduated, including T.J. Franklin, a walk-on guard who was on Blake Griffin’s Elite Eight team and was often credited for his leadership. He fit the cliched “walk-on” role, sure, but he was actually the one guy with winning experience in this program. So it’s important to at least note his departure, along with reserves Barry Honore and C.J. Washington.
State of the Program: Better days may be coming, Sooners fans. Kruger has never faltered with any college program, so it’s difficult to doubt him even after a subpar first season. He’s making his own unique mark in Norman now with a promising recruiting class and could get a big boost from M’Baye, and his senior class is individually talented but not quite groomed to win yet. That’s why 2012-13 is so critical for Kruger. Win big and the future of Oklahoma basketball looks bright. Another losing season, though, would result in all new questions for Kruger after the graduation of those four seniors. But we’re not about to bet against Lon Kruger. And we’re not sure you should either.