The expectations surrounding Oklahoma basketball are never extremely high or outlandish like they are at places like Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, even when the Sooners are good.
The Sooners haven't had anything that resembles high expectations since the Blake Griffin era, but with a No. 19 preseason ranking, four starters returning from a 23-win team and an impressive group of newcomers joining the fray, expectations are higher than any other time since Griffin took his talents to Los Angeles.
For this group of Sooners, it will be the first time they've gone into the season with something to live up to. After the program tumbled—and tumbled quickly—after an Elite Eight run in 2009, anything positive has been a good thing for the OU program. Now, good isn't good enough. Not with this group of players.
“That'll be different and it will be interesting to see how we handle it because it will be the first time we've been going at it from a different level of expectation,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “That's where you hope the experience and understanding of the older guys will pass that on and help the younger guys. It will be interesting to see how we handle that as the year unfolds because it is different. It's new and it's a challenge we're excited about.”
Oklahoma is almost always overlooked from a basketball standpoint (even by its own fans) because of its standing as a football school. Now, people across the country are beginning to take note of the Sooners and what they could accomplish this season. For junior Buddy Hield, the recognition is nice, but not satisfying.
“People know who we are but we're still hungry,” Hield said. “We feel like this is the next step to this basketball team. We're just trying to do what we can do to get to the next step and we have a great leader in Coach Kruger who is behind us and we listen to him. We're just trying to compete day in and day out.”
The Sooners' closed last season with first round exits in the Big 12 tournament (against Baylor) and the NCAA tournament (upset by No. 12 seed North Dakota State). The two losses soured what had been a spectacular season in relation to the expectations coming in and that has fueled the Sooners throughout the offseason.
“It's fuel,” sophomore Frank Booker said. “It left a bad taste in my mouth and everyone else's mouth. Knowing Cam (Clark) and Tyler (Neal) left after a loss in the first round again, it hurt. I cried myself, even though I didn't do as much as I could I cried. It's been a lot of fuel and now we're working even harder to get where we want to be.”
While this is unchartered territory for the Sooners, Kruger said the approach doesn't change for his team. It's always about taking it one possession at a time and focusing on what is coming next without worrying about the past.
“I think that approach helps us be consistent and not worry so much relative to expectations or relative to opponents but just relative to what we're capable of doing,” Kruger said. “That's what we hope to get—guys playing as close to their potential each night, each game, each possession. If we do that, everything else kind of takes care of itself, but easier said than done. That's a big challenge, the talk out there and the expectations and media attention is different and we have to handle that well.”
The players take their cue from Kruger, who sophomore Jordan Woodard says is the “most consistent man” he's ever met. With Kruger leading the way, the Sooners know success isn't far behind.
“He knows what's needed to get the job done,” Woodard said. “Don't get wrong, he pushes us to the limit every day, and he really just wants the best out of us, and as long as we play defense, rebound and get out in transition like he asks us to do, we'll be successful.
“We feel like as a team we stay even keel. We haven't been into the rankings and things of that nature so far, and it really just motivates us to win championships this year. I feel like that's the main focus.”
Expectations are high for the Sooners this year, and they get even higher if the NCAA rules TaShawn Thomas eligible. That's a lot to handle for a program that's not accustomed to being in the spotlight. But this year's Oklahoma team has what it takes to make some noise and maybe even make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Even with high expectations, OU is looking to surprise once again.
*Note* Much of the following changes if transfer TaShawn Thomas is ruled eligible to play this season. Thomas would start at the forward position alongside Spangler and would undoubtedly be the best newcomer on the roster.
PG- Jordan Woodard
G- Buddy Hield
G- Isaiah Cousins
F- Ryan Spangler
F- D.J. Bennett
Even without Thomas, this is a very impressive lineup with four starts from last year's team returning. D.J. Bennett is a very good defensive player, particularly as a shot blocker, but is a bit limited on the offensive end. Any consistent production from him there is a bonus for the Sooners.
MVP: Buddy Hield
Hield is the undisputed leader and best player on this Oklahoma team. After a summer spent with the Bahama National Team plus stints at both Kevin Durant and LeBron James' camps, Hield is better than ever and ready to lead the Sooners on a deep run this year.
Most Improved Player: Jordan Woodard
As a true freshman last year, Woodard was very good, but there were still plenty of times when he looked like a freshman. This year, Woodard should be much more aggressive on the offensive end, and should also make better decisions when it comes to setting his teammates up.
Best Newcomer: Khadeem Lattin
If Thomas is not able to play this year, Lattin's development becomes much more important for the Sooners. Lattin is a self-described stretch four and is long and lanky. He could be pushed around by bigger players, but he's got great speed and athleticism, leading to tremendous upside.
Three big games:
1. Nov. 26-28- Battle 4 Atlantis (various teams)
The Sooners are in this tournament with some of the best teams in college basketball—UNC, Georgetown, Butler, UCLA, Florida, Wisconsin and UAB. This is as good an opportunity as there will be for the Sooners to show the rest of the nation they are for real and command respect. A couple wins here—the Sooners open against UCLA—would classify this as a successful trip. The Sooners should have a home court advantage of sorts with Buddy Hield being a native of the Bahamas.
2. Jan. 5 at Texas
While the Sooners have recruited good players and developed them, Texas has recruited excellent players and put together a ton of talent in Austin. All that talent garnered a top-1o ranking despite the Sooners sweeping Texas a year ago. The elevation of the talent at both schools will spice up this first edition of the Red River Rivalry as the two teams battle to determine which is better suited to challenge Kansas.
3. Mar. 7 vs. Kansas
Speaking of the Jayhawks, they're the kings of the Big 12 until someone knocks them off their perch. The Sooners beat KU in Norman two years ago and close the regular season with the Jayhawks in Norman this year. This game could be anywhere between a great conference matchup to a clash that could decide the Big 12 regular season title. Lloyd Noble should be rocking (for once) for this one.