Now entering his fourth season and surveying a roster he’s built, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger likes what he sees.
“We love the guys we have in the program,” Kruger says. “They’re a group that is easy to watch and fun to cheer for from a Sooner fan perspective.”
And it’s a group that’s contributed to steady progress, with four starters returning, including leading scorer Buddy Hield, from last season’s 23–10 squad that finished second in the Big 12.
Still, true progress is measured in NCAA Tournament wins. And while OU has earned its way into the bracket the past two years, they’ve exited quickly, sticking around for just one game each time.
“I like where we’re at,” Kruger says. “Always like to be further along and further ahead. We’ve got to keep working at it. We’ve got to keep making progress. I think we’ve got young guys in the program now that understand that.”
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Ryan Spangler needs help. And whether or not he gets it could swing the Sooners ahead — or hold them back. At 6-8, Spangler is best suited for a power forward role, as a face-up shooter with versatile skills. Forced to play center a year ago, he faced a grind that took a physical toll and frequently landed him in foul trouble. Still, he averaged 9.6 points and a team-high 9.3 rebounds, shooting 58.4 percent from the floor — numbers that could easily expand under less stress.
The ideal hope for help lies with the NCAA’s ruling on transfer TaShawn Thomas, who is seeking a waiver in the wake of a coaching change at his former school, Houston. Thomas, a 6-8, 240-pounder with the body to play the post, led the Cougars with 15.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game and ranked No. 14 nationally with a 59.1 field goal percentage. A tandem of Spangler and Thomas would be formidable.
If Thomas fails in his appeal, the Sooners could be scrambling. Veteran D.J. Bennett is a solid defender and shot-blocker, but is limited offensively. C.J. Cole is a sophomore who has been slow to assert himself. Dante Buford is the most advanced of a promising group of freshmen, yet packs just 208 pounds on his 6-7 frame.
Oklahoma Sooners Facts & Figures
Last season: 23-10, 12-6 Big 12
Postseason: NCAA round of 64
Consecutive NCAA appearances: 2
Coach: Lon Kruger (58-38 at Oklahoma, 28-26 Big 12)
Big 12 Projection: Fourth
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 32
The Sooners are loaded at the guard spots, despite Je’lon Hornbeak’s exit in search of more playing time at Monmouth.
Hield emerged as one of the Big 12’s best, averaging 16.5 points and leading the team with 90 3-pointers in his sophomore season. And Kruger believes Hield can do even more by meshing the attacking style he displayed as a freshman with the catch-and-shoot skills seen in his second season.
“That combination of the two years, where he’s attacking more, although we want him to keep shooting it well,” Kruger says. “We’d want him to get back to attacking the paint and finishing at the free throw line, if not the rim.”
Jordan Woodard seized the point guard spot as a freshman a year ago, starting every game and leading the team in assists (4.6 apg) while scoring at a 10.3 clip. He also proved fearless, taking and making several big shots late in games.
Isaiah Cousins also returns as a starter, having survived a scary situation after an errant gunshot lodged in the back of his shoulder. A full recovery is expected.
Junior college transfer Dinjiyl Walker can play either guard spot and is being counted on to backup Woodard at the point after Hornbeak’s departure. Frank Booker gave the Sooners a boost off the bench a year ago, when he hit 36.8 percent from 3-point range. He could see his role increase.
After consecutive seasons of going one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament, last season as a favorite, the Sooners are yearning for more — much more. The reality of taking the next step is tied to beefing up production in the paint.
The guards are good, among the league’s best as a group. Yet if the Sooners can’t find balance, and Spangler remains out of position, their postseason potential will be limited again.
“We’ve been to the tournament now a couple of years,” Kruger says. “Now we want to go farther in the tournament and win games in the tournament. That’s the challenge that lies ahead.”
TaShawn Thomas started 96 career games at Houston, averaging 14.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots over three seasons. He’ll be a major addition to the frontcourt if he’s granted immediate eligibility. Dante Buford could be asked to contribute immediately up front. A home school star in Houston, Khadeem Lattin is a skilled big man who could be a future star. Jamuni McNeace is a bit of a project who needs to bulk up.