Big 12 Team Preview: Oklahoma SoonersPosted by Kory Carpenter on November 4th, 2013
Over the next two weeks, the Big 12 microsite will preview each of the league’s 10 teams. Today: Oklahoma.
Where We Left Off: Oklahoma returned to the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since Blake Griffin was in Norman. It was a short trip, however, as the Sooners lost to San Diego State in the round of 64, 70-55. Head coach Lon Kruger enters his third season at Oklahoma and is one of the most experienced coaches in the country. He has gone largely unnoticed, though, especially this year in a league that has (rightfully) been focused on Andrew Wiggins and Marcus Smart and the budding rivalry between the two players and their schools. Kruger, on the other hand, is slowly turning things around at Oklahoma. He won 15 games his first season and 20 games last year. If he continues that upward tick this season he should get consideration for Big 12 Coach of the Year because his top three scorers are now gone.
Positives: Sophomore guard Buddy Hield gained meaningful experience last season as a freshman, averaging 25.1 MPG, 7.8 PPG, and 4.2 RPG. He deferred to upperclassmen like Romero Osby, Steven Pledger and Amath M’Baye, all of whom are gone. Hield could become the best offensive weapon for Kruger, which would mean good things for the future. Senior forward Cameron Clark also returns for the Sooners. Clark averaged 6.5 PPG last season while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. Those two players, along with sophomore guards Je’lon Hornbeak (22.7 MPG, 5.6 PPG last season) and Isaiah Cousins (15.7 MPG) look to form the core for the Sooners offensively. Expect Hield and Clark to shoulder a lot of the load offensively early in the season.
Negatives: The Sooners averaged 70.6 PPG as a team last season and nearly 50 of those points per contest do not return this year. The top three leading scorers — Romero Osby, Steven Pledger, Amath M’Baye — account for most of the missing production, averaging 37.7 PPG themselves. It’s unclear how that will affect returning players and if they will be able to maintain a similar offensive output. The 2013 recruiting class doesn’t look like it will make an impact this season either. Kruger signed a pair of three-star players, Frank Booker and Jordan Woodard, as well as unranked Keshaun Hamilton. It was a quiet recruiting class after signing Hield and Hornbeak, both four-star recruits in the class of 2012. With momentum following a five-win improvement last season, the Sooners will have surprised a lot of people if they continue that climb up the win totals column this season.
Best-Case Scenario: Buddy Hield takes a not-so-uncommon jump in production his sophomore season and becomes the go-to guy for Kruger. Gonzaga transfer and Oklahoma native Ryan Spangler plays up to the lofty expectations he set in high school after being named the Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year. He averaged 2.5 PPG for Gonzaga in 2011-12 and sat out last season in accordance with NCAA rules. With all the departures, Spangler will have plenty of chances to prove himself early in the season. D.J. Bennett, a transfer from Indian Hills Community College, will also get his chance to play down low. He averaged 7.2 PPG and 4.6 RPG two seasons ago and redshirted last season. If both transfers contribute right away and the rest of the returning core are productive, the Sooners could finish in the top four in the Big 12 this season.
Worst-Case Scenario: If the pair of transfers struggle and Lon Kruger doesn’t find a consistent third scorer behind Hield and Clark, the Sooners could become irrelevant in a hurry. They have some potentially tough non-conference games early in the season and the top of the Big 12 will be tough as usual. The pressure of staying with intrastate rival Oklahoma State won’t be fun, either. They could lose a handful of non-conference games, get swept by the Cowboys in Big 12 play, finish behind Iowa State and West Virginia in the conference standings, miss the NCAA Tournament, and nobody outside of Norman would blink.
Projected Starting Lineup:
- G Je’lon Hornbeak (So., 6’4”, 184 pounds; 22.7 MPG, 5.6 PPG)
- G Buddy Hield (So., 6’4”, 208 pounds; 7.8 PPG, 1.2 SPG)
- G Cameron Clark (Sr., 6’7”, 211 pounds; 6.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG)
- F Tyler Neal (Sr., 6’7”, 234 pounds; 6.8 MPG, 1.4 RPG)
- F Ryan Spangler (So., 6’8”, 232 pounds; 2.5 PPG at Gonzaga)
Reserves: After Hield and Clark, the starting lineup is up in the air this early in the season. The sophomore Cousins could start in place of Hornbeak. Neal could be jumped by Bennett. Spangler could earn a starting spot down low as well. Don’t be surprised if you see a number of different starting lineups from Kruger, especially in November and December.
Set Your DVR
The Sooners could potentially have one of the better non-conferecne schedules in the Big 12, which should help all the inexperienced players learn on the go before the grind of an 18-game conference season hits them in early January. They play in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Brooklyn in late November, play a tough road game at George Mason, and make a few stops in Texas as well, which should help their long-term recruiting in the Longhorn State.
- 11/8 vs. Alabama (in Dallas): The Crimson Tide finished third in the SEC last season with a 12-6 conference mark, going 23-13 overall but failing to secure an NCAA Tournament bid. They were 3-1 in neutral site games last season and return leading scorer Trevor Releford, who averaged 14.9 PPG as a junior.
- 11/22 vs. Seton Hall (in Brooklyn): Seton Hall finished near the bottom of the Big East last season, but like Alabama returns its leading scorer. Fuquan Edwin averaged 16.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, and 2.4 SPG last season. The Sooners should still be favored over the Pirates, though, setting up a big test the following night.
- 11/23 vs. Michigan State (in Brooklyn): Oklahoma could lose to Seton Hall and Michigan State could lose to Virginia Tech, but expect the Sooners to match up with the Spartans here. Michigan State is the favorite in the Big Ten and one of the favorites to win the national championship. They enter the season #2 in the AP preseason poll and would be a good team to show Oklahoma where they stand, or more importantly, how far they have to go to become great.
Outlook: The margin for error isn’t large for Oklahoma this season, but the Sooners have the potential to hang near the top of the Big 12 behind Kansas and Oklahoma State. Don’t expect them to necessarily do so, but crazier things have happened. Buddy Hield could be one of the better guards in the conference and Cameron Clark has as much experience as any player in the Big 12. The team should stay around that 20-win mark it reached a season ago but don’t expect to see back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances with all the new pieces to implement. The underclassmen-laden backcourt should help lay the foundation for some success down the road, however.