Buddy Hield recognized that there was work to be done before jumping to the NBA. Work for himself, and the Sooners.
Hield, the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year, passed on an early payday for a return to Oklahoma for his senior season. With Hield leading four returning starters from a 24-win team that advanced to the Sweet 16, the Sooners’ sights and expectations are soaring.
“I’m on a great team, and we have a lot of unfinished business,” says Hield, who will be among the National Player of the Year favorites. “I just can’t wait to see what’s in store. I want to go to the Final Four.”
All Big 12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Senior forward Ryan Spangler willingly surrendered some of the interior scoring load a year ago to accommodate transfer TaShawn Thomas. The two worked well together, but with Thomas gone, more scoring from Spangler likely becomes a necessity, at least until Khadeem Lattin or Akolda Manyang proves capable on the offensive end.
Lattin provided meaningful minutes as a freshman a year ago, but mostly as a defender and an energy guy. Ideally, he remains a key piece off the bench while he continues to work on building size and strength and an offensive game.
That’s likely if Manyang, a junior college transfer, proves that his versatile skills translate to the Big 12. A 7-footer who is expected to be a rim protector, Manyang could alleviate a heavy reliance on Spangler to produce points in the paint if, as expected, he quickly adapts and becomes a solid scorer.
Dante Buford figured to be an immediate contributor last season, before NCAA issues with his Florida high school forced him to redshirt. Buford, a 6'7" forward, again projects as an impact player and one who can help inside and out, with an offensive game capable of extending to the perimeter.
No. 8 Oklahoma Sooners Facts & Figures
Last season: 24–11, 12–6 Big 12
Postseason: Elite Eight
Consecutive NCAAs: 3
Big 12 Projection: 3
Postseason Projection: Sweet 16
Hield is the headliner, a game-changing talent who averaged a Big 12-best 17.4 points a year ago, along with 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists. He scored in double figures in 32 of 35 games, led the league’s guards in rebounding average and produced the program’s fourth-most made 3-pointers with 93 treys.
“He’s meant so much to the program,” says Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, “and obviously he wants to finish some business.”
Hield is flanked by quality veteran help in Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins in the Sooners’ three-guard lineup. Woodard is a gritty and clutch performer at the point, while Cousins is the team’s best perimeter defender. Both need to work on becoming more consistent with their scoring.
Dinjiyl Walker struggled to handle the backup point guard role last season, forcing Cousins to cover when Woodard was off the floor. Walker’s playing time may be linked to his improvement, with incoming freshmen Rashard Odomes and Christian James expected to push for major reserve roles.
Odomes, at 6'7" and accomplished on both ends of the floor, gives the Sooners an element they didn’t have off the bench a year ago. James is a bit behind after suffering a broken leg and missing the regular season of his senior year in high school, although he did return for the playoffs.
Key Losses: G Frank Booker, F TaShawn Thomas
Top Players: G Jordan Woodard, G Buddy Hield, G Isaiah Cousins, F Ryan Spangler, F Khadeem Lattin
Akolda Manyang, a former four-star prospect, will be given every opportunity to start at center. Rashard Odomes, a wing from Copperas Cove, Texas, may be the most polished of the prep recruits and projects as a key reserve. Christian James should also contribute at guard. After an NCAA-forced season on the sideline, forward Dante Buford figures to command a major reserve role.
The Sooners managed a breakthrough of sorts last March, winning in the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Kruger, after a pair of one-and-done displays the previous two years. They played well, too, eventually falling to surging Michigan State in the Sweet 16.
Now there’s momentum for more. And there’s reason for optimism, with Hield and the other veterans in place and the appearance of improved depth— boosting one of the few problem areas with last year’s squad.
“It’s great that we have an experienced group and a new group that will challenge those guys to continue to get better,” Kruger says.
The Sooners face an aggressive schedule that includes Villanova (in Hawaii), visits to LSU and Memphis and home games against Wisconsin and Creighton before getting into the Big 12. But this should be a team built for the challenge, with four returning regulars who have started every game the past two seasons to lead the way.
Oklahoma should be ready to challenge for the Big 12 title — and more.