Big 12 Team Preview #8: Oklahoma SoonersPosted by KoryCarpenter on November 2nd, 2012
Over the next two weeks, we’ll bring you the obligatory team preview here at the Big 12 microsite. Oklahoma at the #8 position is next on our list.
- 2011-12 record: 15-16, 5-13 Big 12
- Key Contributors Lost: None
- Head Coach: Lon Kruger
- Projected Finish: 8th
Every school in the country is one hire away from success or mediocrity. Take Kentucky’s handoff from Tubby Smith to Billy Gillispie to John Calipari, for example. So when Oklahoma fired Jeff Capel in 2011, two years after guiding the Sooners to the Elite Eight but failing to survive a tumultuous 2010-11 season, no one could really tell where the basketball program was headed. They had been to three Elite Eights since the turn of the century but it was nothing that could protect them from the wrath of a potentially bad hire. But in came Lon Kruger, the career journeyman who has coached in the Mountain West, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, and the NBA. He took Florida to the 1994 Final Four and will surpass the 500-win mark this season. Last season in year one in Norman, the Sooners went 10-2 in the non-conference season thanks to a slate against teams like Idaho State and Santa Clara but struggled in the Big 12, finishing eighth and missing the postseason for the third straight year. There were a few bright spots between all the losses, though, like the 13-point victory over in-state rival Oklahoma State or the season sweep of Kansas State, an NCAA Tournament team. Luckily for the Sooners, they’re in a considerably better spot this season than Texas Tech and TCU, four should-be wins in the conference. Here’s why: Kruger returns every major contributor off last season’s team. Experience matters — just look at Missouri’s regular season last year. That experience could have a big effect on the program going forward as well. With four seniors in the starting lineup, an impressive season could boost Kruger’s recruiting going forward, which was so-so this year.
Six players last season played at least 30 games and averaged more than 4.0 PPG. All six players are back, led by leading scorer, guard Steven Pledger (16.2 PPG). Pledger has seen plenty of minutes in all three of his seasons at Oklahoma and his offense has improved each year. He emerged as a legitimate three-point threat last year, raising his three-point percentage from 35.0 percent in 2010-11 to 41.6 percent last season. He was the only threat from deep for the Sooners, who didn’t have another player within 100 three-point attempts of Pledger’s 173. But as noted, Pledger won’t be alone this season. All five of last year’s starting lineup is back, and all five are upperclassmen. Senior forward Romero Osby averaged 7.3 RPG to lead all Sooners last season. He was also second in scoring with 13.0 PPG, and he’ll be helped down low with Wyoming transfer Amath M’Baye, who sat out last year and has two years to play in Norman. M’Baye averaged 12.0 PPG and 5.7 RPG in 31 games for Wyoming in 2010-11. Kruger surprised a lot of people when he named M’Baye one of the teams’ captains earlier this month, along with seniors Osby and senior Andrew Fitzgerald. That has to be a good feeling for Sooner fans, that a transfer who didn’t play last season is that highly thought of on a team with so many players returning. M’Baye scored in double figures on 22 occasions with the Cowboys two seasons ago including a five-game conference streak when he averaged 21.0 PPG.
Completing the frontcourt trio is forward Andrew Fitzgerald, a 6’8” junior who averaged 12.0 PPG and 5.0 RPG last season. His size suggests he should be rebounding better than his numbers tell us, but he was a solid scorer, shooting nearly 47 percent from the floor. Speaking of rebounding, the Sooners were a pedestrian 55th in country last season with 36.9 RPG. With Osby and Fitzgerald returning and the debut of M’Baye, that number should spike considerably. With all the frontcourt depth on the roster, there’s really no reason for the rebounding production not to go up.
While the Sooner front line has depth and experience, Pledger won’t be able to carry the backcourt on his own. Senior guard Sam Grooms started all 31 games last season, averaging 6.7 PPG in over 31 MPG. He was the last option on offense for a team that struggled to score most nights. He had over 15 points just once last season with plenty of off nights in between offensively. Even for a player that was rated the third-best junior college player in 2010-11 by JucoRecruiting.com, the offensive setback isn’t surprising. The jump from the junior college ranks to the Big 12 can be tough for anyone. The final primary starter from last year’s team is guard Cameron Clark, who started 28 games as a sophomore while averaging 8.5 PPG and 4.7 RPG. Clark was a top-40 recruit by every major scouting service coming out of high school in 2010 and has been good but not great in his two seasons in Norman. He’ll never be asked to do too much by Kruger, not with guys like Pledger and Osby on the court, but he’s a steady presence in the lineup with 60 starts in 63 games so far in his career.
Kruger’s freshmen class is led by a pair of Rivals.com 4-star shooting guards, Buddy Hield and Jelon Hornbeak. Hield averaged 22.7 PPG for Sunrise Christian Academy (Kan.) and turned down offers from Memphis, Missouri, and Texas A&M, among others. Hornbeak was Rivals.com’s 24th ranked shooting guard out of Arlington, Tex. and had impressive offers that included Louisville and West Virginia as well as now-rival Texas.
Why They Might Be Better Than You Think
As I mentioned before and you probably already know, experience matters a whole bunch in college basketball (unless you’re Kentucky, of course). The Sooners have as much experience as anyone in the country, returning 151 of a possible 155 starts from last season. Lon Kruger in his second year will also benefit from this year’s team as the older guys become more ingrained in how Kruger likes to run a program. Steven Pledger will need to stay consistent on the perimeter and the frontcourt needs to rebound better than it has in the past, which the availability of M’Baye down low will help tremendously. If that happens and no one takes a significant step back while one of the freshmen has a productive year, the Sooners could sneak into the top half of the Big 12.
The flip side to all the talk about experience is the actual results from last year. These returning players weren’t freshmen getting used to the speed and physicality of the college game. They were sophomores and juniors struggling to stay above .500 once conference play began. They struggled to score all year, averaging just 69.1 PPG (144th nationally). They were 168th in the country with a 43.5 shooting percentage because they couldn’t get open looks on offense. Sam Grooms led the team with 6.0 APG but nobody else came close, as they averaged just 13.8 APG as a team. Pledger’s scoring is a nice boost but his nearly 1-1 assist-to-turnover ratio didn’t make things easy for the Sooner offense. If they can’t get easy looks again, all that experience won’t be worth much.
The Sleeper Candidate
Jelon Hornbeak wasn’t a top-100 recruit last year but his offer sheet speaks for itself. His ability to back up either Pledger at the two-spot or Grooms at point guard gives Kruger plenty of flexibility in the backcourt, something the Sooners didn’t have last season. If Hornbeak can get the ball down low with ease and create easy looks for scorers — also something they didn’t have last season — he’ll see plenty of action this year and could make a big impact on Oklahoma’s postseason chances.
Worst case scenario, the Sooners are in this same spot in March, as there’s no way they’re passed by Texas Tech or TCU this season. And while they aren’t close enough in talent to compete with a Kansas or a Baylor, there are enough pieces on the roster — along with Kruger on the sidelines — to jump other middle of the pack Big 12 teams like Oklahoma State or Iowa State. There’s not much room for error, though.