Well, I suppose many of us can just breathe a sigh of relief after last night’s Big 12 Tournament loss to TCU, a team that just upset Kansas earlier today. While losses aren’t typically celebrated, especially for an Oklahoma program that just 11 months ago was preparing for the Final Four, this one couldn’t have come at a better time as a surprise run in the Big 12 tournament didn’t seem like a likely scenario. Finally, this true rebuilding season for Sooner basketball is over, and now we can look ahead to brighter days.
With each end comes a new beginning. Though an 11-20 season wasn’t what most of us expected, neither was another run at a conference title or a Final Four berth. What began as a decent chance at a fifth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance quickly faded into a complete overhaul and rebuilding for a new era, led by a group of versatile youngsters with a season of experience and recently given an explosive boost by a sharp-shooting hometown McDonald’s All-American eager to suit up and show out next season.
Way to fight bros. Can't express how fired up I am‼️Help is coming— Trae Young (@TheTraeYoung) February 28, 2017
It was heartbreaking to see Jordan Woodard’s career come to a premature end with nearly a month left to play in the season, but it forced his young teammates to fight through sometimes-outlandish growing pains to come out with much more experience and character than anyone expected without their clutch-shooting crutch on the floor to bail them out. Sure, things would’ve been different and the team would’ve likely been playing for more with a healthy Woodard in the lineup all season, but instead a backseat or less time as option no. 1 for budding star Kameron McGusty resulted in a breakout debut season and foreshadowed a potential All-American career at Oklahoma.
This scrappy but sloppy team blew lead after lead and lost in such disappointing ways that even the most diehard fan couldn’t help but turn away. Yet, through this trial by fire, these Sooners displayed more grit, determination and attitude to match the promising talent on this roster and laid the framework from which to grow into another possible Final Four contender over the next few seasons. As tough as it undoubtedly must’ve been for the senior star and leader Woodard to watch from the sidelines, he also witnessed his young teammates coming of age without him there to back them up, and this is what head coach Lon Kruger will take moving forward.
Next season will see a versatile roster with good size ready to challenge once again for a conference title and possibly much more. Juniors Khadeem Lattin and Darrion Strong-Moore will be the lone seniors on the 2017-18 team, while starters Rashard Odomes and Jamuni McNeace head into their junior year ready to become veteran leaders as well. Fellow sophomores Christian James and Dante Buford will also make the jump to juniors in eligibility and hopefully into difference makers on the floor, as experience and late-game poise was left much to the imagination of fans as the pair struggled all season.
I don’t expect either to transfer, as there is still upside for Kruger to bring out in both of these rangy, capable talents. Perhaps more expected is the leap promising freshmen McGusty, Kristian Doolittle, Matt Freeman and Jordan Shepherd will make in their sophomore seasons. Touted freshman Trae Young’s game complements this roster and Kruger’s style of play to perfection, and this year’s freshmen have already grown up after this rough season and are sure to be part of the core for the next few to come.
Kruger’s 2017 class, though only three players deep, shows great promise with four-star Harrah, Okla., forward Brady Manek and 7-0 center Hannes Polla from Helsinki Academy in Finland joining the ultra-talented Young in Norman. There doesn’t appear to be a need to add much more with an already young rotation in place ready to contend. So, next year’s Sooners will boast a youthful but battle-tested, balanced, athletic squad brimming to return to Big 12 and college basketball relevance.
Lon Kruger and his players won’t be forgetting this season by any means. But with this rebuild underway -- and perhaps largely out of the way -- his young squad seems poised to make the bold proclamation that Oklahoma basketball is back. And Trae Young seems just like the kind of kid that’ll make sure of it.