Coming off another Sweet Sixteen appearance in last year's NCAA Tournament, the Oklahoma Sooners return four starter to this year's squad, including the Big 12's leading returning scorer in senior guard Aaryn Ellenberg. Oklahoma was also picked by Big 12 coaches as the preseason favorite to win the regular season title. Which in a league finally without the towering presence of Britney Griner actually seems like a real possibility.
The Sooners open their 2013-14 season on Saturday night with their first of two exhibition games and the game will be available on Sooner Sports TV.
In addition to Ellenberg, Oklahoma returns starters Morgan Hook, Nicole Griffin, and Sharane Campbell all of whom played key roles in the Sooners NCAA Tournament run last year. Sherri Coale will also have Nicole Kornet and Portia Durrett who both gained some valuable experience last year and minutes they probably would not have received were it for the multiple season ending injuries this team suffered both prior to and during last season. In fact, one of those players, Kaylon Williams, will return in 2013 and provide scoring and depth in the post. Unfortunately, Maddie Manning who was one of said season ending injuries last year (torn ACL) recently suffered an ACL tear in her other knee and will have to sit out this season.
Everything begins and ends with Ellenberg on this team. She has been the driving offensive force for the Sooners over the last couple years and while she can be a streaky shooter at times, when she is hot there might not be a better shot in the entire country. Additionally, these new rules limiting the hand-check defensively should only increase her already significant presence on the free throw line.
Hook is a mainstay at point guard and will man the position once again this year, but she did recently suffer a dislocated thumb which is expected to keep her out for at least OU's first two exhibition games. Don't look for Coale to rush Hook back as Ellenberg is capable of running the point if need be and they'll need Hook to be healthy this season. When she is healthy, Hook is an above average three point shooter who is also sneaky quick off the dribble and can create in the lane.
Campbell is listed as a guard on the roster, but she swap between both there and forward and is a bit of a do-it-all type player similar to that of Amanda Thompson from several years back. She can score both inside and out though the strength of her offensive game is driving to the basket, creating contact, and getting to the free throw line. If you watch OU games, you will repeatedly see Campbell slowly picking herself up off the ground after falling much harder than you would think anyone could and still get up and walk.
Nicole Kornet is the other returning guard who, as we mentioned above, somewhat unexpectedly saw extended minutes last year. She came in with a reputation as a pure shooter, but she showed some ability off the dribble and is a more than willing defender as well.
Aside from those listed above, everyone else in the backcourt is a newcomer and there are several of them. T'ona Edwards is the most likely of the group to see significant time considering she plays point guard and with the aforementioned injuries to both Hook and Manning. For whatever it's worth, Edwards was likely going to see considerable time this season regardless. She was the state of Oklahoma's Little All-City Player of the Year and helped lead her team to an undefeated season and state title. She is a point guard who is capable of scoring, but with the talent around her will probably spend more time looking to set up her teammates. She is very fast with the ball in her hands and more than capable of running the up-tempo style Coale is expected to employ this year.
Gioya Carter is another freshman guard who will likely play this year as well and like Edwards hails from the Sooner state. She was the state of Oklahoma's Big All-City Player of the Year and averaged over 18 points and seven rebounds during her senior season. Joining Carter on this year's squad is Derica Wyatt who was Miss Tennessee Basketball in 2010, 2012, & 2013 and a dynamic three point shooter. One other name to remember is Peyton Little who will have to sit out this season after transferring from Texas A&M, but played in every game for the Aggies last year was a very highly regarded recruit.
With Griner no longer in this league, the only thing standing between 6'6" Nicole Griffin dominating in the post is herself. Obviously size is not and has never been an issue, but in prior years Griffin's slender frame has allowed smaller players to physically push her out of the post and limit her offensive opportunities. That started to change at times last season and if she has made similar progress this offseason, there is no reason to expect anything less than a breakout season from the OU senior.
The Sooners will gladly welcome back Kaylon Williams who missed all of last year after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in the preseason. She provides a physical post presence who isn't afraid to mix it up with defenders and scrap for those offensive rebounds. She is also a solid post defender on the other end and can play either the four or five position when Griffin isn't in the game.
Portia Durrett is the only other returning post player and while her minutes dwindled towards the end of last year as she struggled to make the transition from the JUCO level to D-I competition, she has an inside and outside game that can certainly help this OU team in the coming season.
Freshmen Shaya Kellogg and Felisha Gibbs will provide depth inside and both likely be called upon at times to contribute early on in the season and when those ahead of them run into foul trouble.
As mentioned in the open, this team was picked to win the Big 12 and while that might be a little ambitious given how much youth there is on this team it's also not wildly unrealistic. A number of things would probably have to break right for them and they've already started off on the wrong foot with the loss of Manning who was expected to be the primary point guard behind Hook.
They have depth, but it's not depth with experience so look for Coale to get the five freshman on this squad involved early and often during the opening portion of OU's schedule because at some point they're going to be needed this season.
Even if they don't wind up winning the Big 12, this is almost assuredly an NCAA Tournament team unless the wheels just completely fall off.
They are going to be a fun team to watch and Coale has repeatedly said how excited she is to see this mix of experience and youth gel together as the season plays out. Heck, if nothing else it's the final year we'll have to watch one of the great scorers (Ellenberg) in program history.
So make sure to check back in all year long with CCM as we'll do our best to keep you apprised of how things are going for Sherri Coale and her Sooners.