The Sooners started off to a promising start last season, but stumbled once Big 12 play began. Year two under Lon Kruger has a lot of promise, and the Sooners have set their sights on a berth in the NCAA tournament. With all five starters returning, and skilled newcomers joining the team, the Sooners will be much improved from a year ago.
Lon Kruger's Sooners were picked #7 in the preseason Big 12 poll
All offseason, there was a lot of hype surrounding the newcomers on this team. Wyoming transfer Amath M’Baye is expected to make the biggest impact, and was named Big 12 newcomer of the year by the coaches. “It means a whole lot to me, but a preseason award is a preseason award,” said M’Baye. I’m very excited and proud, but it doesn’t mean anything if I don’t get it at the end of the season. The recognition from my peers is what means most to me, the fact that I was named as a captain of the team without even playing a game here means a lot because these guys are my brothers, and they’re my family. It means a whole to me and I’m excited.”
M’Baye says he can fit in multiple roles, and will use his versatility to help the team in whatever way he can. “I think I can provide a lot of versatility whether it’s on the offensive end or the defensive end. I can guard multiple positions, I can play multiple positions, but I’m not the only one like that on this team, we have people who play several roles and that’s going to provide match-up problems for the people we play.”
Isaiah Cousins, Je’lon Hornbeak, and Buddy Hield are incoming freshman that are expected to make an immediate impact at the guard positions. After both Carl Blair and Calvin Newell transferred out, it was critical that Kruger landed all three to put quality depth in the backcourt. All three have already received high praise from their teammates, and have been nicknamed the “Knuckleheads” by the veterans on the team. “They’ve definitely pushed us all,” said Steven Pledger. “They’ve pushed all of the older guys and they’ve brought youth and excitement to our team.”
The backcourt seems to be set with Steven Pledger, Sam Grooms, and Cameron Clark returning from last year’s team. Not only is Pledger the returning leading scorer for the Sooners with 16.2 points per game, he’s also the returning leading scorer in the Big 12. Pledger shot 41% from behind the three point line last year, and will be counted on to provide big numbers once again from the outside.
Sam Grooms has been working on his offensive game all off-season, and will look to be more of an offensive threat this season. Grooms averaged 6.7 points per game last year, but he also had the highest assists-to-turnover ratio in the Big 12. With not much quality depth behind him last year, Grooms was forced to play a lot of minutes. With the depth they now have behind him, Grooms won’t be counted on to play the significant amount of minutes he played last season.
It seemed last year that when Cameron Clark (8.5 ppg) was good, the Sooners were a very tough team to beat. The problem however, is that Clark had a very inconsistent season last year. Clark’s focus this season needs to be consistency and showing up to play every game. If he can do that, and be a consistent force, it will allow more opportunities for Pledger.
Down low, the Sooners will be a force as they return both Andrew Fitzgerald and Romero Osby. An All Big 12 honorable mention selection last year, Osby returns for his senior campaign after averaging 12.9 points and 7.3 rebounds last season. Osby will be counted on to be a big contributor on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
Andrew Fitzgerald also returns for his senior season after averaging 12.1 points and 5 boards a game last season. “Fitz” was named one of the team captains along with M’Baye and Osby, and will be counted on to provide leadership to the newcomers. Though undersized, Fitz will need to improve his rebound numbers from a year ago.
These five returning starters give you a solid core, but the difference this year will be the improved depth on the team. Last season, the Sooners didn’t have a lot of quality depth off the bench. With Tyler Neal returning (4.0 ppg) and M’Baye, Cousins, Hornbeak, and Hield entering the mix, the Sooners will be much deeper this season.
Romero Osby will look to be the Sooners biggest force down low
Rounding out the rest of the roster is Casey Arent, D.J. Bennett, C.J. Cole, James Fraschilla, Jarrod Kruger, and Steve Noworyta. These players will be competing in practice for playing time.
Kruger put his team through some rigorous workouts in the offseason, including Navy Seal training. “It was hell, I hated it,” said M’baye. “Like I said before though, it was a great team bonding experience. Everybody got together, and everybody got a lot closer. We had to work together and I think that’s something that helped us throughout the preseason, and it’s something that will definitely help throughout the season.”
Things are looking promising for year two of the Lon Kruger era, and Pledger says the expectations among the team are high. “I know for me, and definitely for our team it’s the NCAA tournament.” Pledger also adds that there is a different feel to this team, and that they’re a much more confident group than last year. “We know that we’re deep, and we know we have somebody behind us, and we know we can go harder for longer, knowing that somebody is there. We’re definitely walking around with a little more confidence. It’s good for us.”
M’Baye agreed, and said “We have great depth at every position. Pretty much everywhere we have somebody who can sub in and provide a good amount of work.”
The Big 12 looks to be tough once again, but M’Baye thinks it’s an advantage to play in such a tough conference. “The Big 12 is a tough conference, but the good thing with playing in a tough conference is that all you need to do is win a couple of games here and there, and win a couple games away, then make sure you take care of your home advantage and you’re going to get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament.”
The Sooners will open up the season this Friday on Nov. 2nd with an exhibition game against Washburn at 7:00 p.m. inside the Lloyd Noble Center.