New faces for Sooners, Kruger
NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — It won’t be easy for Oklahoma to build on last season’s NCAA tournament appearance.
The Sooners return just six players from last year’s team, losing their three top scorers from last season. Oklahoma did get a head start, with a five-game trip to France and Belgium in August.
“With so many new guys and 10 days of practice, we had the opportunity to identify roles and try to develop an identity and personality of the team,” coach Lon Kruger said. “It was a jumpstart on that more than anything else.”
Last season, Kruger became the first coach to lead five teams to the NCAA tournament as the Sooners made the field for the first time since 2009.
Five things to keep an eye on as Oklahoma tries to make it back to the tournament:
YOUNG GUARD: The roles of Oklahoma’s three returning sophomore guards will change this season. After moving between the guard spots last season, Je’lon Hornbeak will primarily handle the point to start the season. Isaiah Cousins will play exclusively on the wing after playing at point at times last year.
“I think we have the chemistry to be one of the best backcourts in the Big 12,” Cousins said.
And then there’s Buddy Hield, who was the top scorer of the three as a freshman and appears to be back to 100 percent after breaking his foot late last season and then aggravating the injury in August. Hield altered his shot in the offseason.
“I was a shooter in high school but I fell off last year,” Hield said. “I think I’m ready to make that step to become a better basketball player.”
SETTING THE TEMPO: After losing nearly all of their inside scoring production from last season, the Sooners will try to take advantage of the athleticism of the three returning guards to turn up the tempo on the offensive end.
“I feel that we’ll run some teams down and I don’t think they’ll be able to keep up with us,” Hield said.
The change especially turns up the pressure on the point guards.
“The decision-making becomes that much quicker,” Hornbeak said. “Windows are that much quicker. You enjoy it though, because there are going to be times when you make big plays.”
CAM ON: Last season, Romero Osby was the Sooners clear leader on the floor. This season, though, the Sooners have just two seniors in Cameron Clark and Tyler Neal. Neal is expected to be a role player but Clark figures to be back in the starting lineup after starting nearly every game as a freshman and sophomore before coming off the bench in every game last year. Clark was the Sooners’ top offensive threat on their five-game trip to Europe in August, averaging 16.8 points per game.
“Cam is not the most vocal but he brings it every day in practice,” Kruger said. “All of the other guys appreciate how hard he works and what he has invested in the program.”
REDSHIRT PRODUCTION: Ryan Spangler and D.J. Bennett each redshirted last season, Spangler after transferring from Gonzaga and Bennett after coming over from junior college. Both will be asked to provide big minutes down low, as will Keshaun Hamilton. Spangler used the time off to work on his mid-range game. Bennett will miss the exhibition games after suffering a partially torn tendon in his foot recently but Kruger is hopeful Bennett will be back in time for the Nov. 8 opener against Alabama in Dallas.
WOODARD WATCH: Hornbeak will start the season as Oklahoma’s starting point guard but freshman Jordan Woodard has already made a big impression. Woodard is the only true point guard on the roster and could see his role expand quickly. Kruger said that no player on the roster benefited more from the team’s August trip to Europe than Woodard. He had more than twice as many assists as any other Sooners player during the five games on the trip.
“I feel like I can hopefully bring more fluidity to the team’s offense,” Woodard said. “I’m just all about making sure my teammates are getting the ball.”