Early season success has lifted the Oklahoma men’s basketball team into the national rankings, but the Sooners will learn immediately how they stack up in Big 12 Conference play when they open against the league’s ultimate measuring stick.
“We’ll find out right away all the things we still need to work on and what we’re doing OK,” OU eighth-year coach Lon Kruger said, forcing a chuckle.
The No. 23-ranked Sooners (11-1) face 14-time defending conference champion and No. 5-ranked Kansas (11-1) at 8 p.m. Wednesday inside historic Allen Fieldhouse on ESPN2.
KU (.726) and OU (.709) have been No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in RPI rankings the past two weeks.
“It’s going to be a real test of how good we are,” fifth-year senior center Jamuni McNeace said. “It’ll be hostile. It’s an exciting place to play. I like playing there.”
“(The Wisconsin loss) kind of woke us up and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to play harder.’ We know we have to lock in and play a full game. Our schedule made us who we are now, made us tougher.”
– Jamuni McNeace
This year’s Big 12 opener arrives with a sense of déjà vu for the Sooners.
Last year, OU began the season unranked and made its Top 25 debut in the Dec. 18 poll. This year, the Sooners also began the season unranked and made their Top 25 debut in the Dec. 24 poll.
Last year’s OU team opened Big 12 play with only one non-conference loss. Ditto this season.
Last year’s Sooners pushed their record to 14-2 and peaked at No. 4 in mid-January, but lost 10 of their final 14 regular-season games, barely qualified for the NCAA Tournament and finished 18-14.
And that’s where this year’s group hopes the similarities end.
Gone is All-American freshman point guard Trae Young, the No. 5 overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft who became the first player ever to lead Division I in scoring (27.4) and assists (8.7) in the same season.
Also gone are multiple inconsistencies that proved costly last season.
“The biggest difference is our defensive intensity and their consistency,” Kruger said of this year’s team, which has surrendered just 66.1 points this season compared to 81.7 last year. “It’s pretty much been the same focus, awareness, communication which has allowed us to get better defensively, for sure.”
The Sooners entered this week as the Division I leader in defensive rebounds (32.75) and seventh in total rebounds (43.17). OU also ranks 11th in field-goal percentage defense with opponents shooting just 37.5 percent so far. Last year, opponents shot 44.1 percent from the field.
With Young now departed, OU’s offensive totals have tumbled.
“We had a guy last year who could dominate the game offensively,” McNeace said of Young. “You lose that and everybody has to step up a little bit. We just kind of spread it out now that we don’t have Trae. It was real exciting to play with him because he drew like four or five defenders every time.”
Many times last year, the Sooners admittedly became too reliant on Young. This year’s team is spreading the wealth offensively and sharing the intensity defensively.
“Offensively, we’re a little less consistent, but making progress,” Kruger said.
Five players average between 17.9 and 7.2 points per game, led by senior shooting guard Christian James, who leads the Sooners in scoring (17.9), defensive rebounds (75), 3-point field goals (29) and double-doubles (4).
Sophomore forward Brady Manek leads OU in rebounding (7.5) and is third in scoring (10.8).
“It’s been different guys on different nights,” Kruger said of his team’s offensive output. “Christian has been the guy most nights. He’s certainly been the center of it, but he’s getting help from different guys on different nights.”
As a freshman, James was mentored by national Player of the Year Buddy Hield, who was notorious for spending hours shooting in the practice gym.
“He works hard,” Kruger said of James. “He’s taken it up a level in the spring, summer and fall with a ton of extra shots. He’s not just shot the ball better, he’s playing better. He’s been much more efficient, not searching quite as much. The shots are coming to him and he plays off the dribble, too. Obviously, he’s rebounding more (7.2 per game, up from 4.4 last season).”
McNeace said of James: “Christian has really spent a lot of time in the gym. Buddy set an example for him. He’s always in the gym shooting. Just like with Buddy, you could walk into the gym at any time and Christian will be there – shooting in the morning before lift (in weights) and then shooting later a night. It’s no surprise to us he’s shooting so well. We knew he was going to be a go-to guy.”
One of the most experienced teams in the country, OU has six seniors, which includes two fifth-year graduate transfers in Aaron Calixte and Miles Reynolds, plus McNeace. The Sooners also have depth with nine players averaging double-digits in minutes.
Calixte leads the team in assists (3.6) while Reynolds leads in free-throw percentage (.806) and is second in scoring (10.9).
Asked if he was surprised at the immediate impact of Calixte and Reynolds, McNeace said, “Not at all. I could tell when they both came on their visits they were going to be real good players. It was kind of hard to tell which one was going to be better. They were both hoopin’.”
McNeace said all this experience is the primary reason this year’s team has bonded so quickly.
“We’re playing with a lot more confidence,” McNeace said. “We’re playing together. We’re really locking into focus on defense, so I feel like that’s helping us jell together on the floor.”
OU’s lone loss this season was a 78-58 setback to Wisconsin in the second round of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament on Paradise Island, Bahamas.
“Even though we lost, it was a good game for us,” said McNeace, who has spent the last month rehabbing a lingering right ankle injury. “It changed the way we were thinking. Kind of woke us up and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to play harder.’ We know we have to lock in and play a full game. Our schedule made us who we are now, made us tougher.”
McNeace said he and his teammates were not bothered by being picked to finish eighth in the Big 12’s preseason poll.
“That’s not a problem,” McNeace said. “We really don’t care about that kind of stuff. We just stick together. I’d much rather be the underdog and outshine what people think we can do rather than being a top guy disappointing people.”
The Sooners will have been idle for 12 days when they face the Jayhawks. OU hasn’t played since its 76-69 overtime victory at Northwestern on Dec. 21.
“I like what we’ve done,” Kruger said of his schedule. “This is such a good practice group. Four or five days of good work and it’s been OK with them getting ready.”