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Dean's Blog: Sooners Let Their 'Point Guard' Down In Tough Loss In Big 12 Semis

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It was apropos that Buddy Hield’s nightmare night would not end in glory with his apparent buzzer-beating bank shot from half court, as Oklahoma coughed up the ball a season high-21 times against Press Virginia’s suffocating defense.

A commendable 20-5 rally had put the Sooners in position to win, up three, out of timeout, with one timeout remaining. But at midcourt with 1:25 remaining, Isaiah Cousins coughed up his seventh turnover. And it proved to be fatal. 

Despite Sooner concerns that the game clock and ultimate-decisive red light were not in sync, Buddy Hield’s incredible half court bank-shot and potential game winner at the buzzer, would not count, sending the dagger in even deeper.

In retrospect, OU got what it deserved. After committing just 9 turnovers in their impressive win over West Virginia in Morgantown, this veteran squadron, under instruction from a future Hall of Fame coach and talented staff, melted once again when the game was on the line. In fact, much earlier with the game tied at 8 at the 15:30 mark of the first half, my game notes reflect, “OU not handling traps that well, better fix it, or else.” We’d all seen it too many times.

Bill Self has excelled with two point guards, players who value the basketball or they ride the pine. Bill said Friday that he’d “play three if I could,” noting that defensive matchups won’t allow that. But the point is, true point guards are hard to find. And they are harder to beat, when surrounded by talented players, like KU and OU have on their rosters.

Remember that Isaiah Cousins is not a true point guard. The NY senior is a terrific player, but controlling the ball, the game, the clock, the team and intense predicaments, is not his forte’. His seven turnovers against Press Virginia offset an otherwise productive night, including a 28-foot desperation 3 that put OU up 1 with 2:05 left.

Cousins didn’t play the position until early this season when Lon Kruger made the insightful decision to switch Cousins with Jordan Woodard, who had played the 1 the past two seasons. He progressed nicely, leading the Sooners to three weeks atop the national standings and through a shooting slump that lingered but did not endure.

The loss cannot be placed at the feet of Cousins. At least not solely. For all the player-of-the-year attributes Hield brings, and his remarkable leadership, attitude and play-making ability, he struggles when pressured. Especially by elite defenders with elite coaches – see Kansas and West Virginia. Although he made quantum leaps in his handle from last season and his ability to put it on the floor and finish at the rim, too often No. 24 loses control of the basketball and turns it over.

Woodard’s a dandy player who has been invaluable to this team. But too often against great defensive teams, the ball becomes stuck, slippery and too often bad things result when he puts it on the floor.

The ball-handling reserves are quality players. But not many in crimson are objectively comfortable with the game on the line and the ball in the hands of senior Dinjiyl Walker of true freshman Christian James. The latter will become a star, perhaps as soon as next season, but he was wobbly much of the night under the hot lights and ten arms and legs that harassed him when the ball was in his hands.

For all the positives – and Lord knows Kruger and this bunch of classy, talented, character-rich fellas have shown enormous positives for the past three seasons – these Sooners have six days to try to come up with answers that heretofore have been elusive to them.

They’ve shown flashes of greatness under pressure. In the triple-OT thriller in Lawrence. And Friday night against Iowa State, they excelled at attacking the defense and the basket before the defense could establish itself. It’s worth noting, the Cyclones don’t defend like KU or WVU. But the nine turnovers at Morgantown were encouraging.

Kruger must also come up with ways for Hield to gain separation from persistent defenders. Too often, Buddy would go stand in the corner or catch the basketball too far from the basket with one – and soon to be two and three – defenders to take on. Seems getting him touches near the paint allowing him to take smaller guards might be an option. But I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know and that Kruger & Company know what they’re doing. It’s quite possible that if they coached them well enough to only commit 9 turnovers to these same Mountain Men in Morgantown then these same guys are the ones who beat the responsibility. But it’s always a team thing. Particularly with in-game adjustments.

I can’t remember a year when an OU team with a chance to make a deep run is as dependent upon their matchups as this bunch. They likely won’t see teams that will dog them like we saw Friday night, although advanced scouting is so good these days you can bet every opponent will know the blueprint.

There’s very little chance OU doesn’t begin their NCAA Tournament in OKC and receive a two-seed. Both should benefit them greatly. It is vital that there is no pouting going on about minutes played, as was relayed to me by multiple reliable sources. No time to hang your head. This is the greatest time of year and most fun opportunity for college players.

This group is capable of a deep run, and who knows, a shot in the championship game if things fall just right. But they also could get bounced. Early. Clearly, the key to have any real chance at a Final Four run, the Sooners have 6 days to figure out how to the handle the suffocating pressure that everyone from here on out will apply.

*Great point guards prefer being pressured like great QBs prefer being blitzed. Because the great ones look at those situations as opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities of defenses. Part of OU’s problem gets back to the premise stated earlier that they do not have a true point guard. But all of the guards are capable, and have shown the ability to exploit aggressive strategies. Mental toughness is required as is having teammates cut and move to make themselves available.

*Multiple OU players, including Khadeem Lattin and Hield told me they thought ‘the shot’ was out of Hield’s hand before the buzzer. Maybe they knew what they were talking about as photos clearly show .1 seconds remaining when the shot was out of Hield’s hand. Unfortunately for Oklahoma the red light had flashed a fraction of a second earlier.

*I watched Lon Kruger to determine whether the review would stand. He accepted the decision to reverse the call immediately and never complained.

*Kruger claimed Lattin’s puffy eye was fine and that tests proved he could see 100 percent after suffering an elbow below his left eye Friday night. Lattin told me otherwise, and I agree that his vision impaired his shooting. He missed the first of a 1 & 1 badly to the left, which never happens with him. He’s always on line, with his misses being short or long. Also, I watched him closely in warm-ups and noticed he did not shoot the 15-18-foot jumper with the same confidence or stroke he used in making two big jumpers Friday night. He came on strong, but his offensive game could have helped greatly.

*Many people will remember the two late free throws Ryan Spangler missed that would have gone a long way to ensuring an OU win – the second miss an airball short. But it was Spangler banging against the rugged Mountain Men all night long and knocking down 3-point shots when his teammates couldn’t buy a basket or get the ball past half court. 

ETCETERA….

*There were a handful of times Cousins or Woodard struggled to beat the ten second count in getting the ball past half court. Many of those possessions saw OU not get into any offensive set as the shot clock dwindled from 6 to 5 to 4. Bob Huggins’ defensive warriors and their impact on the game was reminiscent of the’85 Buddy Ryan 46 defense of the Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears. By the way, 30 for 30 has a great feature on that ’85 team.

*It’s going to be interesting where Buddy Hield is drafted and how much his struggles against tight man will hurt him. I’d guess his pure shooting and impeccable character will lead someone to take him in the first round with the expectation that they can coach him up.

*After declaring Hield the winner of National Player of the Year following his 39-point game Friday night, could last night’s nightmare and OU’s semifinal  loss allow Denzel Valentine to nip him at the finish line? The answer is yes. It’s possible. But I still believe it’s Buddy’s. I’d imagine some guys holding out with their votes went ahead and cast them after his Friday night explosion. But the media hype and national attention that would go to Valentine if (and when) MSU advances to the Big 10 Championship Game will be substantial.  

*I’m sticking with my prediction that Christian James quickly develops into OU’s next offensive star. The moment was too big for him early against WVU’s pressure, but he persevered and was outstanding until missing the critical layup in the waning moments. I see his 3-point stroke leading him to a 20-plus PPG scorer – and soon.

*The Sooners showed great resilience in making that furious 20-5 run that put them in the lead heading down the stretch. It even had KU fans excited as I believe they were not only rooting for their neighbor state with a Kansas kid coaching them, but they were hoping for an entertaining KU-OU championship game – and another look at Buddy Ball. Frankly, I also believe they were very confident that they would clamp down on the Sooners and win a Saturday final.

*The most remarkable stat of the night was not Buddy Hield being held to 6 points. It was that even with him forcing a few shots the WVU defense allowed him to get off just 8 shots, making just one – just one Solo Cup, Toby. 

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