After a seven-game losing skid, it’s easy for a coach to lose a young locker room. If the young guys still haven’t bought in to the coach’s style, system, and values, then it’s usually game over for a team—see you next season.
Usually, buying in happens during a winning streak. After the Texas Tech victory, Kadeem Lattin—the team’s vocal leader—said that they young guys bought in ‘a few losses ago.’
On a team with 11 underclassmen (five of them true freshmen), that’s rare, and it really speaks to an undervalued part of coaching. Managing egos and expectations in the midst of a win streak is hard. Doing so in a seven-game skid is more difficult than folding fitted sheets. Lon Kruger has done a masterful job in a buzzsaw of a conference, even if his team’s record doesn’t quite resemble it yet.
And besides, as our own Kartik Rajendran politely reminds us: this season’s not over yet.
Who the Sooners have
The Sooners have been hurt not just by losing talent like Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler, and Isaiah Cousins, but by various nagging injuries that have led to inconsistency in Lon Kruger’s rotations. Naturally, a young team with an inexperienced coach can flounder as their roles are still being defined. Kruger’s no inexperienced coach, though.
And we’ve seen what Kruger can do with potential. Freshman Hield to Senior Hield was one of the most dramatic transformations we’ll ever see this side of Stephen Curry.
Take Kameron McGusty, for example, who’s starting to come into his own in the last few games. A turnstile of different freshman occupied the starting lineup before McGusty got a crack at it: first Kristian Doolittle, then Matt Freeman, and finally Jordan Shepherd before Mcgusty got the nod to start against Baylor.
Since the Baylor game on December 30th , McGusty has averaged 28 minutes and 12.6 points per game, including a career high of 20 points against Kansas State. Save for the Baylor game, every game that McGusty has started in has been within OU’s grasp. He’s shooting 38% in that span. His shooting from deep can’t be considered scorching in college basketball, but the spacing he provides has had a notable effect on the looks the Sooners get in the interior.
McGusty is one of the many young talented players Oklahoma has, and Big 12 coaches have taken notice. In the past two games, Kansas coach Bill Self and Texas Tech coach had effusive praise for not just OU’s young talent, but for Lon Kruger’s development and recruiting.
Recruiting has helped bring in players with potential to be the next Oklahoma star. Against Texas Tech, sophomore Rashard Odomes scored a career high of 24 (adding eight boards and four assists) in an ultra-efficient performance, practically willing himself to the rim. Odomes seems to continue gaining confidence as each game goes on, and he’s scoring easily and efficiently.
As Kartik points out, Dante Buford and Matt Freeman also have the potential to become big-time scorers for OU in the coming seasons. The Sooners seemingly lack any bigs who have the potential to have the impact, say, Ryan Spangler did, but Jamuni McNeace has all the tools to make it happen. Centers generally need much more time to develop and polish their game, so the jury’s still out on the gangly sophomore. For now, he’s in foul trouble a bit too often to rely on.
Who the Sooners Will Have
Oklahoma may or may not be ready as currently constructed to make a deep tourney run, but recruiting will be of the utmost importance for Kruger this season in order to stack the squad as much as possible.
Oklahoma currently has two commits for the ‘17 class, and they’re intriguing pieces. Brady Manek is a 6’9” power forward from Harrah, Oklahoma. He’s a versatile player, able to dribble, drive, and play inside-out, which is pivotal in the college game. He’s got decent touch around the rim, too:
195 lbs. might cut it in 4A, but certainly not in D1, so Manek will have to hit the weight room before he sees any significant playing time.
The other commit is a 6’11” center out of Finland named Hannes Polla. Polla, from the same basketball academy as Arizona star Lauri Markkanen, could be the interior presence the Sooners so desperately need. Little is known about Polla (and no footage exists as far as I could find on YouTube), but he’s touted as a traditional center who excels around the rim—just what Kruger’s squad needs.
The White Whale
The two big guys are good gets, sure. The true white whale of this recruiting class, though, is Norman North’s Trae Young. Young, a 5-star recruit and the 14th-ranked recruit in the nation according to Rivals.com, is the kind of meteoric player that can change the course of a season.
Yes, just one season: Young won’t stay for long if indeed he decides to stay home and commit to Oklahoma. He’ll almost certainly be a lottery pick in 2018 as his skill set is among the most highly-valued in the NBA right now.
Watch Young put up 52 points (including nine threes) in a game:
But Young can bring the sort of pedigree that changes Oklahoma basketball for the better. You’ve likely already heard the comparisons to Steph Curry—perhaps because Curry paved the way for a player like Young to be so successful—and they’re close. Young, however, has stated that he sees himself as more of a Tyus Jones-like player who seeks to create before scoring.
Young is elite, even at this young age, at changing directions, shooting, and creating offense off of the dribble. He’s slight at 6’2”, 170 lbs., but it’s integral to his game. Like Curry, added muscle could detract from his game. An added 10-15 lbs. should be a nice amount for Young.
With Jordan Woodard graduating after this season, Trae Young could immediately take over the reigns to the Oklahoma offense. If Young is a fit—considering Young’s caliber, I’d imagine he’d fit in just about anywhere—and with a bit of luck, the Sooners could make a deep tournament run.
An excellent coach like Lon Kruger, combined with Young at the helm, and complementary pieces like Rashard Odomes and Kameron McGusty as running mates would rival Kansas and Baylor as the Big XII’s best.
That said: even without Young, OU basketball is in perfectly fine shape, and Sooners fans can expect plenty of good basketball coming down the pipeline. Hell, it might even come this season.