Most of us learned only minutes before gametime that OU would have senior star and leading scorer Jordan Woodard available to play against the No. 2-ranked Kansas Jayhawks last night in Norman. It was a surprise to us all, including Lon Kruger, that his point guard who had just been cleared to practice the day before, was able to return to game action this soon. But showing the mark of a true leader and star, Woodard came back to give his young and struggling teammates whatever little boost he could against the Big 12’s basketball juggernaut.
And give them boost he did.
Taking to the floor nearly nine minutes into the game, the sharp-shooting star entered with his typical energy and burst along with some expected rust after missing the last four games with a leg injury and an undisclosed illness. Seeing the floor for the first time since the December 17 home loss against Memphis, Woodard took his first inbounds pass and flew down the court only to get his blocked shot against KU’s Monstar Carlton Bragg, Jr., but soon brought Lloyd Noble to its’ feet as his name was announced.
The Sooners suddenly had life in the midst of a disappointing six-game losing streak and were showing signs of possibly upsetting the heavily favored Jayhawks on Big Monday, a night when the nation’s No. 1 Baylor Bears were just throttled by 21 at Press Virginia, and 8-7 Vandy gave Calipari’s Wildcats all they could handle on the road. With Woodard back in action, OU closed the first half on a 22-6 run and took a 36-27 lead to halftime. Kruger called it his team's best half of the season and had fans once again enjoying the lovable unpredictability of college basketball.
Could this be the night the Sooners somehow rescued what looked like a lost season?
Almost... Beginning with a 13-0 run coming out of halftime, Kansas put together a dominant second half behind Frank Mason III, a senior currently playing at the level of a first team All-American, to ultimately win 81-70, but needed a halftime speech from Bill Self to survive against the conference’s cellar dweller. As the ball was moving and shots were falling for OU, some Sooner fans (like me) couldn’t help but recall Woodard’s performance in last season’s January classic in Lawrence, as it felt like at any point the Sooner star could get on a streak and answer his Jayhawk counterpart’s threes with a barrage of his own. Despite one short exchange in which Woodard hit his only three of the game, it was Mason who answered back time and again to take care of business on this night, and has the Jayhawks poised to take over the nation’s top spot in the rankings with a win against Oklahoma State this Saturday.
Although an upset wasn’t in the cards last night in Soonerland, there can be some positives to take from this game going forward. Though Woodard’s young teammates in the absence of their leader hadn't shot better than 40 percent from the field in his first three games missed, they did come up with a 50-percent shooting effort against No. 25 Kansas State last Saturday. And despite the six-game losing streak extended to seven with the late collapse against KU, Woodard’s return certainly sparked the return of the team’s spirit and the belief that this season could still turn around.
“Everyone is happy,” freshman forward Kristian Doolittle said of his senior teammate’s return to the floor. “You can tell the coaches were happy to have him back.”
Although a .500 record in conference may still be a stretch given the strength of the Big 12, a healthy Woodard can at least ensure this young squad can at least finish with a somewhat respectable mark, perhaps even pull a few surprises along the way. The senior from Arcadia has shown just with his mere presence and once the rust wears off, his lethal jumper and scoring touch, the Sooners’ season isn’t even close to being over. Anything can happen on any given night in this conference, and if an offensive dynamo like Jordan Woodard gets going, there’s no telling what he gets out of his teammates in the process.
Youngsters Kameron McGusty and Rashard Odomes again delivered with big performances last night and could be a potent combo to complement the team’s returning scoring leader — something OU has been searching for all season given the struggles of Christian James and Dante Buford. But with Woodard once again leading the way, it’s not farfetched that James and Buford break out of their slumps and contribute more and more to what is sure to be an improved team by season’s end. There is some tangible talent on this team, albeit overshadowed by inexperience and ineffective defensive play, but enough to make the final record respectable. It’s also not inconceivable that Woodard would’ve gone back and forth with Frank Mason had he come into the game healthy, possibly finishing the upset his young teammates began in the first half.
“I thought our guys' energy, effort, enthusiasm and intensity was terrific,” said Kruger of his team’s performance. “Good steps in a lot of ways, and yet we still have to put together 40 minutes. We're still searching for that.”
It looks like putting together 40 minutes just got a boost with the Sooners leading scorer back on the floor and ready to help rescue what’s left of the season.
"I really didn't expect him to play that many minutes," the Sooners’ coach added. "I thought he got tired a couple of times, naturally. But I thought overall he was very, very good."
Stars usually respond in just these kinds of situations. And the Sooners were just reminded their star is indeed back and there’s lots of season left to rebound and finish strong.