Assessing the Season: Oklahoma SoonersPosted by dnspewak on March 27th, 2013
And then there was one. After Iowa State’s close loss to Ohio State and Kansas’ strong second half win over North Carolina on Sunday, only one of the Big 12′s five NCAA Tournament teams remained through the end of the first weekend. Oklahoma State played the best 12 seed in tournament history (Oregon) and got bounced. Kansas State forgot what time its game against La Salle started and apparently didn’t begin playing basketball until the second half — when it was too late. Oklahoma fell victim to San Diego State’s vicious defense. Iowa State got Crafted by Ohio State. Those locker rooms were surely quiet in the aftermath of those losses. Stunned, probably. Everybody thinks they’re going all the way — or at least have the ability to win a game or two in March — but for four Big 12 teams, the dream has ended. Once the disappointment fades, it’ll become apparent that most of these teams massively overachieved. Here’s our first look at Oklahoma’s 2012-13 campaign:
Final Record: 20-12 (11-7)
The Expectations: We touted Oklahoma as a potential sleeper pick on this microsite, but we were never very serious about it. With Lon Kruger at the helm and strong roster continuity due to an abundance of returning starters and contributors, the Sooners just seemed like the perfect candidate to surprise some people. Still, with as poorly as this team played at times a year ago, nobody dared predict Kruger’s team to do big things. The head coach would get this program rolling one day, sure, but it wouldn’t be this year. There were just too many question marks. Could they figure out how to score beyond Steven Pledger, last year’s leading scorer? Would their bigs improve? Would any of the freshmen guards contribute and actually provide some adequate depth? It seemed there were some decent parts for Kruger to work with, but this looked like the quintessential NIT roster.
The Actual Result: Kruger remade this entire team. It worked. He benched senior Andrew Fitzgerald. He benched point guard Sam Grooms, the leading returning assists man in the Big 12. He leaned heavily on freshmen guards Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Je’lon Hornbeak; he emphasized Romero Osby’s role in the offense; and he got a big boost from Wyoming transfer Amath M’Baye. By the middle of the season, this team had so many more parts than a year ago that Steven Pledger didn’t have to shoulder nearly the same sort of scoring burden. The Sooners lost a few games early in non-conference play, but helped their computer numbers by scheduling a good crop of teams, and then won their first three Big 12 games including at home against Oklahoma State. By mid-January, this team had come out of nowhere to set itself up for an NCAA Tournament bid. Kruger’s freshmen guards exceeded all expectations — especially Hield. He broke his foot in the middle of Big 12 play, but he was the team’s best perimeter defender and has a very bright future ahead of him. And hey, Grooms even found his way back into the starting lineup, perhaps after a little encouragement (or so we’d like to think). Oklahoma was never an elite team, but it handled its business at home for the most part with wins over OSU, Kansas and Iowa State. Thanks to that smart scheduling, a lofty RPI then helped it sneak into the NCAAs despite head-scratching losses at Texas and at TCU.
Highlight of the Year: February 9. Oklahoma knocked off Kansas in Norman on this afternoon, which was the #5 Jayhawks third loss in a row. No matter KU’s struggles, this was the most important win for the Sooners since the Blake Griffin era. It also proved to the league that Oklahoma wasn’t messing around. It was a real contender for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Player of the Year: Romero Osby. He was very good as a junior, but he was great as a senior. The added depth in the backcourt took a little pressure off Osby and helped his scoring production skyrocket to about 16.0 points per game. He got to the free throw line more often, shot more efficiently from the field and developed into the Sooners’ leading scorer. He was also a monster on the glass and one of the better offensive rebounders in the Big 12. He’s not a star in the traditional sense, but his performance this year was good enough to earn a spot on the All-Big 12 First Team.
Surprise Player: Buddy Hield. It’s too bad Hield had to miss some time with his broken foot. He was so good defensively and so versatile at both guard spots that he grew into an important contributor almost immediately for Lon Kruger. Hardly anybody outside of Norman knew who he was before the season, but most of the Big 12 took notice eventually.
Overall Season Grade: B. Oklahoma had a few bad losses. It had a few big wins. Everything else in between wasn’t disastrous enough to knock them out of the NCAA Tournament. Kruger worked his magic and molded this team into an NCAA Tournament participant in just his second season at the school. This was a major rebuilding project, and he’s already well on his way to another strong program. You wouldn’t expect anything else from the man.