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Oklahoma Sooners

Sooners tip off season in rare road opener

In the course of just one year, men’s Oklahoma basketball has gone from being one of the most inexperienced teams in college basketball to one of the most experienced.

At this time last year, the Sooner roster consisted of nine freshman and sophomores and only one senior (Khadeem Lattin). KenPom.com ranked the Sooners 304th out of 351 NCAA Division I teams in experience, based on age and class ranking.

Now, 12 months later: As a result of transfers going and coming, as well as the addition of a pair of graduate transfers, Oklahoma will tip off the 2018-19 college basketball season with eight seniors or graduate transfers and just one scholarship freshman.

Lon Kruger’s team is the oldest in the Big 12 this season, but don’t mistake those added years of experience as an increased talent level, as in the senior-laden 2015-16 Sooner squad that made it all the way to the Final Four. This year’s group has played a lot of basketball, but largely not together.

When the OU men begin the season Friday night, on the road at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the probable starting five will be  Christian James, Kristian Doolittle and Aaron Calixte at the guard positions and Brady Manek and Jamuni McNeace on the wing, with Rashard Odomes as the first reserve to come off the bench. Calixte is a graduate transfer from Maine, McNeace and James are four-year seniors, Doolittle is a junior and Manek a sophomore.

The Sooners lose 57 percent of their scoring,  most of which was from consensus All-American Trae Young (27.4 points per game), from last year’s team that finished 18-14 overall and 8-10 in the Big 12. And this season the Sooners don’t have one true star like they did a year ago, which may work out better than most people think because they won’t rely on one player to carry the majority of the load.

James is Oklahoma’s leading returning scorer. The four-year senior averaged 11.9 last season. McNeace led the Sooners in rebounding in 2017-18 with 5.4 boards a game, followed by Manek with 5,2. Manek is the team’s second best returning scorer with a 10.2 average. Miles Reynolds is the other graduate transfer that Kruger brought in after last season. Reynolds, who played a couple of years at St. Louis University and last season was at Pacific (California), scored 11 points in OU’s exhibition win over Pittsburg State (Kansas) a week ago.

Not only are the Sooners away from home for the season opener, but for game two of the season on Monday at the University of Texas-San Antonio. OU doesn’t play its first home game at Lloyd Noble Center until a week from Sunday, when the Sooners host Wofford out of the Southern Conference. Wofford was 21-13 last season, including a huge road win over North Carolina.

Oklahoma and North Carolina are the only teams from a major conference to begin the season with back-to-back road games.

This is only the third time in the last 40 seasons that OU has opened the regular season on the road and just the second time since 1939 the Sooners have opened with two straight games away from home. There is a good reason Oklahoma agreed to do that. UTRVG and UTSA are coached by former OU assistants under Kruger, Lew Hill at UTRGV and Steve Henson at UTSA.

The connection between Kruger and UTRGV goes back even further than the two seasons Hill has been there. UTRGV recently merged campuses with what was formally Texas-Pan American, where Kruger began his college coaching career in 1982. UTRGV will induct the Sooner head coach into its Athletics Hall of Fame and Hall of Honor at halftime of Friday night’s game.

Kruger was 52-59 in four seasons at Texas-Pan American. His 1985-86 UTPA team was 20-8, the team’s best winning percentage in the last 38 years.

OU is 4-0 against UTRGV and should make it 5-0 on Friday night. Kruger has yet to lose a season opener in his seven seasons at Oklahoma. We probably won’t get our best idea of what kind of team the Sooners will have this season until the home opener with Wofford and the following week in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis holiday tournament in the Bahamas against Florida.

There are not a lot of high expectations for this season’s Sooner men’s squad. The Big 12 coaches picked OU to finish eighth in the Big 12 in the conference preseason poll.

 

 

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