Key Stretch for Surprising Oklahoma Begins Tonight

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 21st, 2018

One of these days, people will learn to stop doubting Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger. Full disclosure: that includes me, but in my defense, my skepticism of the Sooners coming into this year was justified. They struggled horrifically on defense all last season, and it wasn’t just Trae Young. The Sooners routinely got outhustled on the glass, and at a time when spacing and three-point shooting skyrocketed, Oklahoma didn’t apply enough pressure to consistently force turnovers or lock down the three-point line. They memorably beat Kansas by hacking Udoka Azubuike instead of defending him straight-up, and while it was a savvy and winning move, it also highlighted the team’s serious half-court weaknesses. On offense, we all saw how lost the Sooners were on the few possessions where Young wasn’t involved, and Kruger didn’t do himself any favors by pulling in the Big 12’s worst recruiting class. While players can get better, the league’s coaches pegged Oklahoma to finish eighth in the Big 12 during the preseason. All the Sooners have done since is go 10-1 against one of the country’s best non-league slates, with highlights like neutral-court wins over Florida and Notre Dame with a healthy Rex Pflueger and some solid if not overwhelming wins in true road environments.

Overlook Lon Kruger’s Team at Your Peril (USA Today Images)

The key to Oklahoma’s fast start has been its defense. The Sooners aren’t guarding the perimeter especially well or forcing a bunch of turnovers, but what they have done is make every shot a chore. Oklahoma’s defense ranks 15th nationally in eFG% (43.3%), fourth in field-goal percentage on shots at the rim (48.3%), and seventh in free throw rate (22.8%). To lead the way, Jamuni McNeace has developed into one of the Big 12’s best rim protectors, and sophomore Brady Manek has made some big strides as well. On top of their contributions, Christian James has crashed the glass like a man possessed, averaging 12.5 rebounds over his last four games (after averaging just 3.4 over his first seven). Though some of that can be tied to McNeace missing two games with a right ankle sprain from which he still hasn’t fully recovered, James has elevated his defense to complement his offensive improvement, making make him more of a two-way threat.

While OU’s improved defense has paced the team’s fast start, its offense hasn’t always been as good. Quality three-point shooting and ball control have carried the flag on its best nights, but consistency has been fleeting. Tonight’s game at Northwestern (7:00 PM, BTN) begins an insanely tough stretch for this group. Following a 12-day break, the Sooners will go back on the road to face #1 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. A visit from Oklahoma State should bring a reprieve, but next comes a January 8 date with Texas Tech in Lubbock. That’s three tilts against top-30 defenses, including two of the top six, and none of those matchups will take place in the warm confines of the Lloyd Noble Center.

A look at last month’s Battle 4 Atlantis provides something of a benchmark for how Oklahoma has fared against top-flight defenses, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. Against Florida (ninth nationally), Oklahoma scored just 0.94 points per possession even though it won 65-60 by tightening up even more than the Gators did. They weren’t so fortunate the next day against the 11th-ranked Wisconsin defense, though, losing by 20. Even if the Sooners come up short in their upcoming stretch of difficult games, they’ll be in much better shape than the industry predicted at the start of the season. Bag a couple more big wins, though, and the college basketball world will have to start thinking about Oklahoma as more than a run-of-the-mill at-large team.

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