The team likely to make the biggest improvement in the Big12 is Oklahoma. In Lon Kruger's first year, they were 15-16 with a 5-13 record in conference. But there are reasons to believe that they will be an NCAA tourney team in 2012-13. Those hopes are pinned to a high impact transfer- Amath M'Baye a 6'9" athletic big who at least one NBA scout who has watched Oklahoma practices thinks is a future NBA first round pick.
But he is not alone. Oklahoma returns their top 6 players who are now juniors and seniors. Three of those players averaged double figures in points last year- Pledger (16.2); Osby (12.9) and Fitzgerald (12.1). Osby and M'Baye give Oklahoma athleticism and versatility across the front line. Fitzgerald is more of an old school big- he uses his body to score with a variety of post moves. He's not as athletic but a great complement to Osby and M'Baye.
Lon Kruger starts his second year at Oklahoma. His career record is 492-320. Sometime early this year he will get his 500th career victory joining Rick Barnes (533) and Bob Huggins (709) among Big12 coaches in this fraternity. Bill Self also has a shot at getting to the 500 club- he needs 24 wins to do it.
Kruger has taken four different programs to the NCAA tourney- KSU (4 times); Florida (2 times); Illinois (3 times) and UNLV (4 times). He is hoping to make Oklahoma his fifth program to reach the NCAA tournament. Oklahoma has had a three year drought from postseason. They have been to the NCAA tourney 22 out of the last 30 years.
Kruger's staff includes two guys who were with him at UNLV- Steve Henson who played for Kruger at Kansas State and Lew Hill. Chris Crutchfield is the other assistant. Crutchfield came from Oral Roberts but he has strong recruiting roots in Texas.
6-1 203 lbs Sam Grooms (SR)
Sam Grooms would be the ideal point guard on a team with four athletic scorers at other positions. Unfortunately, last year's Oklahoma team was not that team. Grooms takes care of the ball and distributes. He had 14 games where he had over 7 assists. His assist to turnover ratio was 3 to 1 which is outstanding. He's a solid defender. What he doesn't do very well is shoot. He was only 35% from the field and 20% from 3 point range. He shoots free throws at 66% and gets to the line an adequate amount- close to 3 free throw attempts per game.
OU has newcomers at guard that are better shooters but they are freshmen. Freshmen make mistakes and my hunch is when the games get competitive in Big12 play, Kruger will gravitate towards a point guard that he knows will take care of the basketball and play sound defense in Grooms.
6-4 219 lbs Steven Pledger (SR)
Pledger is the other returning starter in the backcourt for the Sooners. He is one of the best shooters in the Big12 if not all of college basketball. He shot 46% from the field and 42% from 3 point range despite getting Big12 defenses top gameplans to shut him down. The strategy that most teams employed was to cheat defenders towards Pledger and allow Grooms to shoot all the jumpers he wanted- similar to what teams did against Baylor with Walton and Dunn manning the backcourt two years ago.
What Pledger and OU hope to see this year is an increase in Pledger's trips to the foul line. Those trips increase when you have leads which OU hopes to have more frequently this year. But they also increase with experience and craftiness. Pledger has shot over 80% from the foul line each year (83% in 2011-12). He averaged 3 foul shots per game last season. If he could get closer to 4 attempts per game, that will help OU's chances to win close games. One thing Pledger doesn't excel at is defense. He's not the quickest guy laterally. This can be a problem for OU against athletic backcourts. But his positives far outweigh the defensive issues. I would expect him to be OU's best scoring option from the perimeter again this year and contend for All Big12 honors.
6-6 208 lbs Cameron Clark (JR)
One guy OU fans are hoping takes a big step up this year is Cameron Clark. He came to OU as a top 40 national recruit. He is an athletic wing who can tantalize with spectacular plays and then disappear for long stretches. He averaged 9 points and 5 rebounds for the year.
His play has been inconsistent but trending better. For example, during a 5 game stretch at the end of the season Clark averaged 13.4 points and 6.4 rebounds. But the four games before that stretch he averaged 3.5 points. He has the potential to be a very good defender and scorer if he would play with a strong motor for 40 minutes. Reports out of the OU camp say that his shooting from the outside has really improved in the off-season. If that is the case, Clark could be that second scorer from the perimeter and OU will not have to rely on a freshman to fill that role.
6-3 199 lbs Buddy Hield (FR)
Hield is a late riser who ended up a top 100 national recruit. He is from the Bahamas. One of Bearstruth's subscribers saw him play live and had the following comments: average quickness for D1 but a willing defender. He was able to shut down one of the Harrison twins by denying him the ball for long stretches. He may not be quick enough to log heavy minutes at PG but should be a good combo guard with defensive skills. He is a decent shooter.
6-3 180 lbs Je'lon Hornbeak (JR)
Hornbeak is someone I am familiar with. I have seen him play multiple times since he played AAU and high school ball with Isaiah Austin- Baylor's star incoming freshman. Hornbeak does everything pretty well. He can hit open jumpers. He defends well. He can score off the dribble. He lacks strength and is not what I would call an explosive athlete.
I also saw him as prone to turnovers but that is tough to project since a lot of those games were blow-out wins playing on good teams against inferior competition. One of my favorite moments was an AAU game against Deron Williams Elite. His team- Family First- was the better team but Deron Williams led by 4 with 8 seconds left. Family First hit a corner 3 and Deron Williams Elite just needed to inbounds the ball to hold on to a 1 point lead. Instead, the Deron Williams player panicked and threw a pass that Hornbeak stole and converted a running shot at the buzzer to secure the comeback win. Just an example of the type of competitor and clutch player Hornbeak is.
6-3 182 lbs Isaiah Cousins (FR)
Cousins is less heralded than Fields and Hornbeak. He was considered one of the better players in the New York City area. He averaged 16 pts; 4 rebounds; 4 assists and 3 steals in high school. He is thought to be a good shooter and a guard with good defensive instincts. Kruger will likely play all three freshman in non conference and see who rises to the top to be a part of the rotation.
6-9 208 lbs Amath M'Baye (JR)
M'Baye will introduce himself to the Big12 after sitting out last year- transferring from Wyoming. He spent two years at Wyoming averaging 12 points and 6 rebounds as a sophomore in 30 minutes per game. Like Osby, he is versatile. He can defend big players because he is wiry strong and a quick leaper. He can defend smaller players because he is quick.
In the past, M'Baye has been a power forward. He has been working hard on his perimeter skills and ball handling in the transfer year. He is a different player than Ekpe Udoh but the similarities are there with Ekpe in that Baylor was picked to finish 9th in the Big12 partly because no one knew how good Ekpe Udoh was except for Baylor insiders and scouts that had seen Baylor practices. Likewise, I think OU insiders and scouts know how good M'Baye is and what a big difference he can make on wins and losses. He is a favorite for newcomer of the year along with Will Clyburn at Iowa State. And could be a guy that challenges for All Big12 honors.
6-8 232 lbs Romero Osby (SR)
Osby was Oklahoma's best interior player last year. He averaged 13 points and 7 rebounds. He shot 49% from the field and 39% from 3 point range. But his numbers were better in conference play- 14 points. Osby plays an aggressive, physical style. He gets to the free throw line- 4.4 attempts per game and shoots 72%.
Having another athletic big like M'Baye should free up Osby to be even more effective. Osby does turn it over almost two times per game. There will be some good frontlines in the Big12, but the safe bet for me is to predict that Oklahoma will have the best. Not the deepest but the best three player combination. They are experienced and versatile with Osby, Fitzgerald and M'Baye. The question is whether their backcourt will be good enough to allow the frontline to shine?
6-8 238 lbs Andrew Fitzgerald (SR)
Fitzgerald averaged 12 points and 5 rebounds last year. He has been a solid player for the Sooners over the last two years. One big concern is how he played down the stretch last year. He averaged 7 points over the last 7 games shooting 37% from the field. He is a 73% free throw shooter.
He does all his scoring down low; from mid range and at the free throw line. He does have his defensive shortcomings. His athleticism is probably below average for a Big12 starter. But adding another good defender like M'Baye to the rotation should hide Fitzgerald defensively enough. I would expect his minutes to decline. He averaged 30 minutes last year. I expect this year that number will be 15-20 minutes per game.
6-7 229 lbs Tyler Neal (JR)
Neal has been a role player for the Sooners the past two years. For him to get rotation minutes his shooting will need to improve. Last year he shot 34% from 3 and 39% from the field. He does play hard and shoots free throws well (80%).
6-10 223 lbs Casey Arent (SR)
Arent is a guy that the Sooners are hoping will be able to play some minutes and give them fouls, rebounding and defense.
6-8 210 lbs DJ Bennett (JR)
Kruger would like to redshirt Bennett. They will lose at least two frontcourt players next year in Fitzgerald and Osby and maybe three if M'Baye plays well enough to be a first round pick. They have signed some juco players to fill the gap and they have Ryan Spangler- a transfer from Gonzaga waiting in the wings. Bennett was also coveted by Mike Anderson at Arkansas.
Outlook and Questions
Is this the year that Oklahoma returns to the NCAA tournament after a three year hiatus? I believe they will. M'Baye's impact along with the returning nucleus of their top six players should bring 5-10 more wins on the year.
Five questions for OU heading into the season:
1. As a team Oklahoma did not do a good job of getting to the foul line. They will need to improve in that area to see a better win/loss record. Cameron Clark is the guy that needs to step up. He averaged only 2 foul shot attempts per game in almost 30 minutes of playing time. He is too athletic to settle for jumpers and fall into passive habits. Will Cameron Clark be more assertive?
2. Will Sam Grooms be a serviceable shooter from the outside? If not, his minutes will likely decline and one of the freshmen will have an opportunity. OU had periods last year where they struggled to score. Teams need to have two consistent perimeter threats to be effective on offense- two guys that can make at least 2 three pointers per game on average unless they have elite athletes that can drive to the basket at will like Kentucky. We know Pledger is one of those perimeter threats. Who will be the other?
3. Can this team develop the will to win in close games? The last three years the team seemed to crater at key moments that past Oklahoma teams were able to fight through. The game would be close under 10 minutes to go and then OU would not be able to score when needed. What will be different this year?
4. Will Amath M'Baye play like an all conference player? What will the benefits be to other players on the roster? If M'Baye makes the impact that I think he will, Oklahoma is going to be a completely different team from last year. But the Big12 as a whole should be tougher. OSU will also be much improved. Kansas, Baylor, Iowa State, Texas and Kansas State all return top players and/or reload with high quality recruits. West Virginia is going to be tough as Huggins teams always are. Will Oklahoma's improvements result in a better record in a tough Big12?
5. What freshman guard rises to the occasion? They will need one guy out of Hield, Cousins and Hornbeak to contribute quality minutes. Will they get it?