Oklahoma’s Rise Powered By Defensive Transformation

Posted by Chris Stone on December 3rd, 2015

On Sunday afternoon, Oklahoma held Wisconsin, one of the country’s top 25 offenses, to just 0.80 points per possession. The Sooners’ 65-48 thrashing of last year’s national runner-up is just the latest example of a defensive transformation that has turned Lon Kruger’s squad into one of the top teams in the nation. Sure, the Badgers no longer have Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky on the floor, but their departures doesn’t take anything away from the latest example of Sooner stinginess.

Oklahoma's swarming defense makes them a Final Four contender. (Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports)

Oklahoma’s swarming defense makes them a Final Four contender. (Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY Sports)

In 2013-14, Lon Kruger’s squad was upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by North Dakota State. They finished 91st in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric that season. With four of their starters returning, the Sooners knew they would need to improve on their defense to take a leap forward in 2014-15. Those four starters — Jordan Woodard, Isaiah Cousins, Buddy Hield, and Ryan Spangler — are still in Norman, and still starting. That quartet, along with graduate transfer TaShawn Thomas, helped turn Oklahoma into one of the nation’s 10 best defensive teams last season. Despite Thomas’ graduation, Oklahoma is on pace for a similarly strong defensive campaign. The Sooners are currently ranked seventh in adjusted defensive efficiency.

The Sooners’ broader defensive reformation can be traced back to two key statistics that have drastically improved over the past few seasons. First, Oklahoma has increasingly forced their opponents to earn their points from the field rather than the free throw stripe. In 2013-14, their opponents shot 38.5 free throws per 100 field goal attempts. That number was better than average but only 134th best in the nation, and certainly limited their defensive ceiling. The past two seasons, the Sooners have ranked in the top 20 in defensive free throw rate and have bottomed out early this year, giving up just 23.7 free throws per 100 FGAs. Wisconsin, for example, shot just 13 free throws on Sunday. By allowing opponents to score under 18 percent of their points from the foul line, Oklahoma has made them more dependent on less reliable forms of scoring.

The second point of improvement was to take away easy baskets from the field, something that Wisconsin saw first-hand, as the Badgers shot a horrendous 25.7 percent inside the arc in Norman. In 2013-14, Oklahoma played with a smaller frontline that featured Spangler, then a sophomore, as the their lone rim-protecting option. Spangler isn’t a terrible shot blocker, but he’s better utilized as a back-to-the-basket post defender. Last season, the Sooners had Thomas function as the team’s primary rim protector. Now, that role belongs to an athletic tandem of newcomers : sophomore Khadeem Lattin and junior college transfer Akolda Manyang. The efforts of that duo (and the rest of the Sooners) have helped this group of Sooners continue the success of a season ago: Since 2013-14, Oklahoma is blocking an additional five percent of opponents’ shots and are seeing opponents make almost 11 percent fewer of their two-point field goal attempts. The Sooners’ defensive philosophy appears to be rather simple–make teams earn every basket they score. They’re not going to create turnovers using a lightning quick press like West Virginia, but they are going to avoid making mistakes and giving up easy buckets. The formula has transformed Oklahoma from a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 team into a viable Final Four contender. Their romp over Wisconsin was the Sooners’ most recent chance to show this potential.

Chris Stone (128 Posts)

Chris Stone is a contributor to the Big 12 microsite. You can find him on Twitter @cstonehoops.


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