Lon Kruger’s club is ready, finally, for a facelift. Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler started every game over the past three seasons as key cogs for a squad that progressed from simply an NCAA Tournament team into a national championship contender, advancing to the Final Four a year ago. Now, all three are gone. Hield — a National Player of the Year and the face of the program — and Cousins were NBA Draft picks, and Spangler snagged a free agent deal. So that’s significant talent.
“It’ll be a new squad, a new identity,” Kruger says. “The guys returning have to be careful not to think that it’s just going to happen again or continue like it has been. They have to establish their own way, take from those old guys last year, the veterans last year, what they can, what they learned. Now they have to develop their own identity and see what they can make of that.”
The Sooners should still have a strong identity, fronted by the other player to start every game the past three seasons: guard Jordan Woodard, a versatile senior capable of playing any of the guard spots. Emerging big man Khadeem Lattin also returns as a starter, giving Oklahoma two premium pieces to front a roster still boasting talent stacked from solid recruiting.
All Big 12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Lon Kruger
2015-16 RECORD (BIG 12): 29–8 (12–6)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Villanova 95–51 in the Final Four
2016-17 PREDICTION: Sixth in Big 12
G Buddy Hield (25.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
G Isaiah Cousins (12.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.5 apg)
F Ryan Spangler (10.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg)
G Dinjiyl Walker (3.3 ppg)
Lattin provided the Sooners with a strong presence during their Final Four run, earning a nod on the Big 12 All-Defensive Team and leading the league with 2.1 blocked shots per game. Entering his junior year, it’s now time for Lattin to bring more offense. The athletic forward is capable, after leading Oklahoma with a 55.7 field goal percentage in averaging 5.6 points. And with so much firepower lost, he needs to look to score more.
Dante Buford was the Sooners’ top reserve in minutes played a year ago and figures to seize a starting spot. Freshman Matt Freeman could provide a challenge to Buford, or play alongside him if there’s a move to go bigger. However it shakes out, the Sooners need one — or both — to stretch defenses from the outside in.
Center Jamuni McNeace showed flashes of potential as a redshirt freshman and should earn a bigger role off the bench. The Sooners lost one potential key piece when 7-footer Akolda Manyang ran into problems off the court and was dismissed from the squad.
Much of Oklahoma’s success could revolve around the point, where Woodard seeks to return after trading places with Cousins last year. It’s what the gritty Woodard wants, yet Kruger will demand a more vocal presence out of him at the spot.
“I expect to play point guard, but if not I’m going to play any type of guard,” says Woodard, who finished second on the team in scoring (13.0 ppg) and 3-pointers made (80) last season.
Christian James surged at the end of last season, putting himself in position to join the starting five. James nearly doubled his regular-season production in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 4.8 points and 3.6 rebounds in five postseason games. He scored 12 points against Texas A&M in one tournament win and pulled down a career-high 10 rebounds against Oregon in the West Region final.
If it’s not Woodard at the point, it’ll be Darrion Strong, who averaged 17.7 points and 3.3 assists at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College last season.
Rashard Odomes is in position to carve a bigger role off the bench. And there’s room for either of two freshmen — Kameron McGusty or Jordan Shepherd — to make an impact in the rotation.
Junior college pickup Darrion Strong was a key addition, giving the Sooners needed flexibility and depth at the point. Matt Freeman, a New Zealander who redshirted last season after joining the Sooners in January, will fill a major role and could push to start. Freshman guards Jordan Shepherd and Kameron McGusty are battling to join the rotation. Forward Kristian Doolittle is a four-star prospect who is a redshirt candidate.
There’s a bit of a rebuild taking place in Norman. Kruger is even working with an overhauled staff, after longtime assistants Steve Henson and Lew Hill left for head coaching gigs. Still, the Sooners aren’t due for some major drop-off. Kruger has consistently added talent to the program, lending to a sort of next-wave appeal and a sense that it can remain relevant and make an NCAA Tournament run.
The point position is worth watching, along with the continued development of Lattin, Buford and James, who must prove they’re ready for premium roles.
Woodward has plenty of confidence in his teammates. “I’m disappointed that people don’t realize how many good pieces we’re going to have next year,” he says.