Riding off a high from their 2016 Final Four run, the Sooners look to regroup as they attempt to replace the production from last season’s celebrated core of Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler. For many teams, this type of transition year could be daunting. For Lon Kruger and his young bucks, this new season potentially presents reasons to be excited and creates more opportunities to engrave their name in OU hoops history.
This thrilling chapter begins with an exhibition game against the Washburn Ichabods. Here is what you need to know before this preseason battle:
New year, new team
A team's identity is mainly formed from the coach's game plan and tailored to fit the star player's style. This could be plainly seen last year when "Buddy and the Gunslingers" threw up over 900 threes. With the Sooners losing players that made 271 of the team’s 381 three pointers this past season, a quick identity shift is in store for Kruger's crew. The Sooners will shift from being "gunslingers" to "rim attackers." Jordan Woodard and Christian James will lead this team on both sides of the ball with their aggressiveness. Woodard highlighted his ability to slash his way to the bucket mostly in his freshman and sophomore seasons when he played point guard. In fact, in Woodard's first season, he put up 22 free throws (making 17) against his brother James Woodard and the Tulsa Hurricanes, leading the Sooners to a 101-91 victory. His style of play shifted this past season as he moved to play off the ball. At shooting guard, he put up 36 more threes as a junior than he did his freshman and sophomore seasons combined. James will step up on both ends of the court with his tenacious play. James made his presence known in the 2016 Big 12 semifinal game by dropping in 13 points and pulling down 5 rebounds. He also showed that he isn't afraid to crash the boards when he grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds in the NCAA Elite Eight against the Oregon Ducks. Complemented by a group of athletic and talented players, this duo will look to get points at the rim, drive and dish the ball or throw a lob for an alley-oop.
However, the Ichabods pose a threat at the guard position as well. Having already played two tough exhibition games against Kansas and Kansas State, Washburn is led in scoring by Isaac Clark (13.0 ppg) and Cameron Wiggins (10.5 ppg). They also return their leading scorer in last year's contest in Blake Javion, who produced 15 points, 2 rebounds and 2 steals. Randall Smith, who has averaged 7.0 ppg and accumulated 5 steals and 9 assists total, is another gritty guard that is aggressive on both ends of the court. This will be an interesting matchup as the strength of both teams is their returning guard-play. The Ichabods will not give the Sooners any breaks, and will look to disrupt their offensive flow and attack the rim. The Sooners will need to take care of the ball so that they do not let the Ichabods get into the open court and get quick transition points.
OU’s weakness exposed?
Although it may seem like the guards may be the biggest concern for the Sooners this season, the issue that has been prevalent in this program is trying to find depth under the basket. OU has missed a dominant presence under the basket since losing the 2009 NBA No. 1 draft pick, Blake Griffin. For the past three seasons, the Sooners have been blessed with Ryan Spangler, the "rebound guru.” Spangler was also helped down low by TaShawn Thomas and Khadeem Lattin. However, the Sooners will need better post play if they want success throughout the season. The Ichabods could expose this weakness to an extent.
In their first two exhibition games, the Ichabods outrebounded the Jayhawks in Allen Field House, and grabbed 10 offensive rebounds against the Kansas State Wildcats (while KSU only had 9). The matchup between Khadeem Lattin and Brady Skeens will be interesting. Skeens (6'7", 211 lbs.) had 61 blocks last season (22nd in the nation), 10 double-doubles, while leading the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association in rebounds (10.2 rpg) and was the MIAA Defensive Player of the Year. Khadeem Lattin (6'9", 212 lbs) blocked 77 shots last season, led the Big 12 in total blocks per game (2.1 bpg) and blocks per game against Big 12 opponents (2.7). Lattin was nominated to the Big 12 All-Defensive Team. The Ichabods will also try to stretch the Sooners' bigs with David Salach (6'7", 210 lbs.) who can also knock down the three point shot. This will be a good test for the Freshman Kristian Doolittle (6'7", 236 lbs) on his first start of the Sooners. This game will also provide the fans and Coach Kruger with a glimpse of what kind of depth the Sooners will possess throughout the season under the basket.
Closer than you think
Exhibition games are customarily not supposed to be close games. These games are designed for coaches to provide young players experience and experiment with various lineups. However, this game may be closer than what people are expecting.
Although it may be difficult to remember, Washburn gave the Sooners a scare in the first half of their contest last season. OU only held a 5 point lead with 4:05 left in the first half, before the Sooners went on a 12-3 run to end the half extending the lead to 14 points. The Sooners kept their foot on the pedal in the second half, and ended up winning by 50 points.
The Ichabods have been competitive in both exhibition games they have played this season. They managed to only be down by 10 points to Kansas State with 1:09 left to play before the Wildcats scored 5 straight to win by 15 points. They also outscored the Wildcats in the second half. Despite being down by 16 points at half to the Jayhawks, the Ichabods made it a 9-point game at 17:02 in the second half and then an 11-point game with 7:45 minutes left in the game. The Ichabods managed to outrebound the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks, and forced them into 23 turnovers. This is not a team to be taken lightly. Their veteran coach, Bob Chipman, will try to beat his former Kansas State teammate, Lon Kruger.
The Sooners will come out with a lot of energy to begin the season. However, sometimes nerves and having too much energy leads to a sloppy game. The Ichabods will stay with the Sooners through the first half. Look for the returning OU players to settle down in the second half and take control of this year’s exhibition game. The Sooners will be aggressive throughout the game and utilize their athleticism to capture this win. OU will seize this win, making the Sooners 6-0 all-time versus Washburn in exhibition games, and Coach Kruger 14-0 against the Ichabods throughout his career.
Final Score Prediction: Oklahoma 82- Washburn 69