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Oklahoma Sooners

Oklahoma basketball makes up for lack of NBA talent with chemistry, effort

For the second consecutive year on the hardwood, the Oklahoma Sooners have started the season winning 11 of the first 12 games. While the records between then and now might resemble one another, the manner in which the two teams are constructed couldn’t be more disparate.

Since Lon Kruger has been in Norman, his most notable teams have been led by transcendent talent. As a senior in 2015-16, and in a day and age of one-and-dones, Buddy Hield showed the college basketball world the value of patience and experience. In 2017-18, it was the Trae Young Show. Unfortunately, the show flipped the script halfway through its first and only season.

The 2015-16 Final Four team was fantastic (and unfortunately ran into a buzzsaw named Villanova), and the 2019 recruiting class has the makings of a group that can potentially bring OU back to that level at some point. Additionally, both Hield and Young were great for the brand of Oklahoma basketball. However, it’s always been possible to make a bit of noise in college basketball without big names. No, the Sooners don’t have an NBA-caliber superstar, but through 12 games, the team has played with a unique level of effort, and that goes hand-in-hand with the bond this team appears to have.

As things currently stand, the Sooners rank ninth in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency measurement and are No. 7 in defensive field goal percentage (37.5%). One of the more impressive outings to date came Dec. 18 when the Sooners held Creighton, whose 45% three-point shooting average led the nation, to 24% from deep on the night.

While team basketball and lockdown defense have been the priorities for this Sooner squad, the quality of the depth might be as important as anything. On a senior-laden team, Christian James stands out as the leading scorer and tone-setter. Center Jamuni McNeace has evolved into one of the best defensive big men in the country and, when healthy, can be a nightmare on both ends of the floor for opposing squads. Sophomore Brady Manek, aka “Larry from the Prairie”, appears to have taken the next step in his promising evolution. Veterans Kristian Doolittle, Matt Freeman and Rashard Odomes have all come up clutch in big moments this season, while graduate transfers Aaron Calixte and Miles Reynolds have settled in seamlessly and produced consistently. Last but not least, freshman Jamal Bieniemy is a tenacious defender, has the ability to create his own shot and is more than capable of commanding the half-court offense while Calixte gets his rest.

Not only is Oklahoma one of the deepest, most experienced teams in DI, it’s also one of the more unselfish groups. Playing with a common goal as a collective unit is vital in college basketball, and when its not happening, it’s obvious. Before the season began, Doolittle and James spoke about the closeness of the team, and how the above-average number of contests away from Lloyd Noble Center will only bring the team closer. Turns out they were right, as their on-court chemistry clearly stands out.

If you’re a long-time follower of OU hoops, you may have noticed the there are a few things that closely resemble the best teams from the Kelvin Sampson era more so than any other squad during Kruger’s tenure. You have an All-Conference-caliber player or two surrounded by a deep cast of players who could contribute double-figure scoring nights if need be. Above all, those Sampson teams were always the toughest group on the court, and they played as one. The team’s bond was undeniable, and no matter who the opponent was, Oklahoma left everything it had on the floor. That’s what this team has shown through the first two months of the season.

Sooner legends like Hollis Price and Eduardo Najera — along with their supporting casts — were major reasons why several of those Sampson-led teams routinely took down teams stacked with NBA-level talent when they themselves typically had none (although Najera did defy the odds and carve out a nice career in the Association). Those teams won three straight Big 12 Tournament titles, spoiled the final game at the “old” (pre-expansion) Gallagher-Iba Arena and made a run to the Final Four in 2002.

Now there may not be a future lottery pick on this team like last season with Trae Young, but there’s no doubt this is a much tougher, more cohesive unit this time around. In clutch situations, the team isn’t reliant on a single player to bring home the victory. Instead, it’s been a group effort, and it’s been mighty effective.

The Sooners have a strength of schedule ranked second in the RPI and 14th by KenPom, but by far the biggest test for this ever-improving Oklahoma team comes Jan. 2 in the Big 12 opener. Right away, the Sooners will find out how they measure up against the league’s best in the Kansas Jayhawks. No one will expect Kruger and company to dribble into The Phog and come away with a victory (OU hasn’t done so since 1993), but no one predicted an 11-1 start to the season either. One thing’s for sure — this team will compete its heart out, so these guys should be on your radar from here on out.

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