There are only five juniors and seniors on the Oklahoma basketball roster this season. There are some programs — Kentucky, Duke, maybe North Carolina — where that’s not a big problem. Oklahoma isn’t one of those programs. The Sooners were always going to be in for a tough year.
Lon Kruger’s playing the long game with this OU team. Kruger knows he’s probably not going to recruit elite talent unless it grows right in his backyard, and even that might not be enough. Unlike the meddlesome coaches at the powerhouse programs, Kruger lets his squad play a loose, unscripted game most of the time, not expecting lots of wins today but preparing his teams for future tournaments. The plan worked perfectly for Buddy, Isaiah and Ryan last season. Kruger thinks he can repeat the blueprint with Kameron, Kristian and Jamuni.
First, though, the Sooners have to get through this season. If OU had any shot of making the tourney this year, it needed a serious level up from Jordan Woodard and Khadeem Lattin, the only two of the five upperclassmen who actually play serious minutes and regularly start. With Kruger content to let his players play — even crash and burn, occasionally — Woodard and Lattin have to play the floor general most of the time. And that hasn’t worked often enough this season.
Some of that, of course, is out of their hands. Woodard, specifically, missed the start of Big 12 play with a still-mysterious ailment and was limited against Florida after feeling dizzy before the game.
It’s really not a stretch to say that OU should be 4-2 since Woodard’s return on Jan. 10 against Kansas. But if there’s one thing a floor general needs to do, it’s make sure his team wins games it leads by 5 with 19 seconds left, or holds on to 19-point first-half advantages.
Neither of those losses can be pinned directly on Woodard (though he almost cost the Sooners an upset against West Virginia before coming up big in the end). But Woodard has basically surrendered the team’s late-game closer role to Kameron McGusty, the immensely talented but inexperienced freshman that future OU squads could be built around. McGusty can be maddeningly inconsistent, and was the obvious scapegoat after the gut-punch in Austin, but Saturday marked his eighth-straight contest with 10 or more points, and he leads all Sooners in January scoring with 15.1 ppg.
Oklahoma needed Woodard to become its next transcendent talent. Instead, his game has remained mostly the same or, in the case of his three-point shooting and assist totals, taken a step back.
Meanwhile, Lattin’s problems are a bit more obvious — and more concerning. Despite preseason expectations that Lattin would become one of OU’s go-to scorers, the tall Texan is averaging just 8 points in 23 minutes so far this year. Jamuni McNeace is now pushing him for playing time at the 5, and Lattin is constantly in foul trouble. He’s averaging 4 personal fouls in conference play, forcing him to the bench early.
Even Lattin’s blocks, a consistent positive in his game, are actually down a bit from last season.
No, any way you slice it, this year’s Sooners don’t communicate well, don’t finish strong and don’t have Buddy to bail them out. It’s proven to be a toxic combination. Their talent can run with almost any team in the Big 12, but inexperience is deadly in this conference.
I’m heartened by what I’ve seen from OU’s next generation. I’ll be happier still if the Sooners can land Trae Young. But while the tournament was always a long-shot this year, it’s been disappointing to see leaders like Woodard and especially Lattin shrink from the spotlight. It was obvious against Florida that OU was demoralized after its Texas and Iowa State fiascos. Leadership can pull OU out of that rut starting tonight.
We’ve seen this team moving full speed ahead, but too often it looks like a rudderless ship.