Oklahoma fell fast after the success of Blake Griffin's second season, ending in an Elite Eight berth. The Sooners were rumored to be loaded with talent for another run at the tournament last year with three McDonald's All Americans - Willie Warren, Tiny Gallon, and Tommy Mason-Griffin.
As we all know, the season left a lot to be desired and those three players decided to leave OU and declare early for the NBA Draft. Warren and Gallon were drafted, by the Clippers and Bucks respectively. Warren may eventually stick as a reserve on some NBA roster. Tiny Gallon was cut, by all accounts, by the Bucks for a lack of effort in the offseason. Or perhaps it was because the Bucks already had a pretty deep roster. The Celtics decided to give Tiny a shot and signed him to a D-League contract.
When all was said and done, OU was 13-18 and missed any kind of postseason tournament.
And so, I don't think I'm making a huge leap by saying that this season is a crossroads for Capel. I admired his ability to get the most out of an average roster in his first season. That year the Sooners scrapped to a 16-15 record, and nearly knocked off the Kansas Jayhawks in Norman. He then enjoyed the success brought by a more veteran roster and the Griffin brothers, and then that high ended with cold hard reality last year.
The success of this season will be predicated on whether or not the Sooners can get back to the team concept that allowed them to overachieve in Capel's first season in Norman. Overachieving might be easy when the expectations are so low; the Big 12 preseason Coaches poll had the Sooners finishing 11th.
Oklahoma only returns one starter - senior guard Cade Davis. Cade is a hard worker who will always give maximum effort on both ends of the floor. He often matched up against the other team's best scorer and did a pretty good job of shutting them down. The problem with the defense last year was often not what Cade was doing, but as the old saying goes "you are only as strong as your weakest link". If Cade's effort can rub off on guys this year more than it did last year, I think the Sooners will fare much better. People often speak of Davis' smooth shot and ability beyond the arc, but I think that his real value lies in his ability to play stingy man-to-man defense.
Andrew Fitzgerald, a sophomore forward, is back in the mix for the Sooners. Since he's a captain, and also the second largest player (231 lbs), I would imagine that he will start in order to provide a bit of an interior presence. He's going to have to make some progress from last season, though, as he didn't look like a starter then. At the very least, he gives the Sooners a relatively bigger body that can compete for rebounds.
Steven Pledger will probably also start. Pledger showed some scoring ability last year, and shot 33.8% beyond the arc. Pledger's biggest weakness was his inability or unwillingness to play within 20 feet of the basket. He always seemed to park by the 3-point line. Since he didn't put it on the floor and drive to the basket often, it made him easier to defend, and limited his rebounds (1.5 rebounds per game).
Beyond that, I have no idea what the rotation or starting lineup will look like. There are two solid recruits coming in that might have a shot. Depending on who you ask, Cameron Clark was ranked as the #5 or #6 small forward recruit in the country. He figures to be a talented player, so it might be hard to keep him off the floor. T.J. Taylor was ranked the #16 point guard nationally by ESPN, but can play as a bit of a combo guard (sort of like Willie Warren). Taylor very well might start at point guard. The only point guard returning on the roster is T.J. Franklin, and he didn't look like he had the confidence, even in garbage time, to make the passes and dribbles that a Big 12 point guard needs to make.
The Oklahoman offers a sobering look at the rest of the newcomers:
OU's other six newcomers that will compete for playing time signed late in the recruiting process in April and May. A few had a handful of offers from BCS schools. But most were recruited by schools like Oral Roberts, Colorado State, Ball State, Wright State and Western Kentucky.
Since I am not into the recruiting process, I'm not going to profile guys that I know nothing about. There are little profiles in that link to the Oklahoman article. Suffice it to say that there are a lot of question marks with this team.
Oklahoma opens up with an exhibition game against Northern State on Tuesday. We should know more after that game: who starts, who plays, who took over major roles, were the Sooners competitive, etc.
After that, the real season starts. The opener is at home against Coppin State on November 12th. The non-conference schedule is a mix of tough and easy. I'll break it down by the KenPom rankings from last season:
- The Easy: Coppin State (324th), North Carolina Central (338th), Texas Southern (268th), Gardner Webb (331st), Oral Roberts (141st), Sacramento State (305th), Central Arkansas (303rd), and Maryland Eastern Shore (322nd).
- The Hard: Kentucky in Maui Invitational (3rd), Virginia (76th) or Washington (30th) in Maui Invitational, Arkansas (105th), Arizona (92nd), and Cincinnati (75th).
If Oklahoma doesn't sweep those "easy" games, they are going to have major problems getting anywhere close to 0.500 this season. That should be 8 wins right there. I will point out that I didn't point out one of their games in the Maui Invitational, because there are a lot of possibilities who that last game could be against, depending on how well they do. Let's just call it a "hard game" for now. However, if they can steal even 2 of those hard games, it would go a long way towards helping them rebound this season from a terrible year last year.
I would expect about 9-10 wins after the non-conference schedule.
Then the conference schedule starts. And, as luck would have it, Oklahoma plays in a rather tough conference. I know you need to take preseason polls with a grain of salt, but the Big 12 has five teams ranked in the Coaches Top 25: Kansas State (3), Kansas (7), Baylor (14), Missouri (15), Texas (25). Texas A&M is also receiving votes. So, going into the season, that's half of the conference that comes in "highly regarded".
Of the three ranked teams from the Big 12 North, they play Kansas State and Missouri on the road, and they get Kansas at home.
The month of February is brutal. They start off on the 1st with a Tuesday Night game against Baylor. The next Saturday they travel to Oklahoma State on the 5th. Then they play Texas at home and Missouri on the road. Nebraska (relatively easier, hopefully) visits town mid-month on the 16th. The Sooners then have to play at Kansas State, at Texas A&M, and Kansas before February mercifully ends.
I think that the Sooners will play more as a team this year, and that may make up for a lack of getting the McDonald's All Americans. As we saw, getting guys with a high school award next to their name doesn't necessarily equal success on the court. Some of our more reliable guys from our Elite Eight season were not exactly highly touted recruits.
The Sooners will go into the conference season with 10 wins. Last year, Texas Tech qualified for the NIT with 17 wins. I think you generally need to shoot for about 18 to get into the NIT from the Big 12, and 17 is borderline. Once you get up around 20-21 with quality wins, then you start getting into the discussion for the tournament.
I think if the Sooners want to get in the NIT, they will need to start the conference schedule strong in order to make up for a really tough February. They have a three game stretch with Texas Tech, Colorado, and at Iowa State at the end of January. Overall, when projecting conference records, I tend to look at home schedules and away schedules. Maybe I'm being pessimistic, but I think they might be lucky to win 3 road conference games, and more likely would win 1 or 2.
Therefore, they really need to make their stand at home. They have some winnable games. They get Colorado and Nebraska coming in from the north. I think they could reasonably go about 0.500 at home which would be about 4 wins.
So, adding it all up, I think the Sooners will be about 15-15 or 16-14 headed into the Big 12 Tournament. 5 or 6 conference wins would be good for about the 8th or 9th seed in the last two Big 12 Tournaments, so they might have a shot at another win. Based on all that, I think the Sooners are probably going to miss the postseason. I will be happy to be proved wrong. I think that in order to make the NIT they are going to need to win one or two games against more mid-level Big 12 teams that I'm not expecting them to win. In order to make the NCAA Tournament they would probably need to far exceed everyone's expectations.
Games That Will Tell Us A Lot
(rankings are Coaches poll preseason ranks)
|The season opener against Coppin State. I know the exhibition will probably give us some information, but this one will actually count. Coppin State was, by no means, a good team last year, and is a team the Sooners will need to beat. I think we'll be able to tell rather quickly whether or not the Sooners are buying into the team concept.|
|The Sooners will open up the Maui Invitational against #10 Kentucky. I guess we'll see how they handle their first road trip when there will be plenty of distractions (it IS Hawaii). If they can even make this game competitive, I'll consider that a major victory for the program. And by competitive I mean generally keeping it within 10 points for a majority of the game.|
|This will be the Sooners' last real test before the conference season, and it will take place in Oklahoma City. While it will be a "neutral court", it should really be a home game. A win here would be a big confidence builder, and could mean the team is coming together at the right time - about three weeks before they open conference play.|
|Oklahoma gets to open up the Big 12 schedule at home. If they can knock off the Aggies, they might start believing that they can actually be competitive in what promises to be a very tough conference.|