Over a month ago, at 12-1, the Oklahoma Sooners were arguably the hottest team in college basketball. Then the first of seven straight road losses happened in Morgantown. At the time, it seemed like it was just a case of getting caught by a great defense in a hostile environment. The next week, Oklahoma recorded two more quality wins against ranked opponents, and vaulted up to a No. 4 ranking. On the surface, everything was fine. Upon closer examination, the team had still not overcome an important mental hurdle.
So what happened since then? As I mentioned, the Sooners have lost seven straight road games and are currently on a four-game losing streak. Yes, the Big 12 is the most formidable conference, top to bottom. But when you have a future Hall of Fame head coach, experienced role players, and the best college basketball player in the nation, losing streaks like this should never happen.
But the fact of the matter is that this is happening. Each individual loss in conference (and at Alabama) has been a tough test, but Oklahoma continually fails these tests. The most frustrating part of it all is that things don’t seem to be improving. The question now becomes, how does Oklahoma fix whatever it is that needs fixing before the Big 12 Tournament and Big Dance? First, the primary issue needs to be identified. From the look of several of the losses, it appears that effort and toughness are both major problems with this team.
At some point Oklahoma is going to bottom out and realize effort is needed to win college basketball games. Until then it's going to be a lot of what you've seen to date.— Eddie Radosevich (@Eddie_Rado) February 10, 2018
Last Saturday, Iowa State tied Oklahoma with 13 offensive rebounds. That seems like a stat one would normally look past, but if you take into account that the Cyclones also had more field goal attempts, a higher shooting percentage and five more free throws attempts, you’ll soon understand just how bad the Sooners have been hurting themselves by not hustling more on the boards. Rebounding is largely about effort, and this team lacks it far too often.
On Tuesday night in Lubbock, more of that same manifested itself once again, perhaps to an even worse degree in all categories. Also, Trae Young can’t be the only starter recording assists. That shows a lack of play-making and ball movement when the ball is not in Young’s hands, which in turn makes the offense as a whole much easier to defend.
As far as Young himself is concerned, the shooting struggles away from home are becoming a bit of a trend. This certainly hasn’t been the case with him all season, but he’s 3-31 from deep in his last three road games. He’s settling for the long (and I mean long) threes more often than he has in the past. I think that may be a symptom of the team’s inability to get into an offensive rhythm, but I also think it can be one of the causes of that lack of rhythm in some instances.
And in the closing moments, when Oklahoma was within a possession to tie the game, the Sooners couldn’t come up with the stops necessary nor the offense on the other end, which inflated the final margin. The Red Raiders rode their momentum nearly all night, and definitely down the stretch, and the Sooners put up little resistance when the going got toughest.
Many times, being mentally tough is what separates the teams in the upper echelon of any given sport. To go on the road against a roaring crowd trying to impose its will is never an easy task, no matter the talent gap. Sure, Trae Young’s talent is greater than any individual player he encounters on the court, but one player is rarely ever good enough to beat an entire team alone. When the opponent gets its home crowd going, Oklahoma has to be able to come together and rise above that. One dunk or transition three or highlight connection on an alley-oop shouldn’t be enough to demoralize the Sooners. The attitude on the court needs to be one that is both confident and resilient, and you need to blco out this kind of stuff:
A “F*** you, Trae Young” chant from the Texas Tech student section— Ryan Aber (@ryaber) February 14, 2018
And while many of the issues have been on the defensive end of the floor, the offense is certainly not without fault. There’s a reason teams are going on double-digit runs on an all-too-frequent basis. The team needs to break those runs with answers. The overall execution and decision-making needs to improve drastically. There are moments when guys are open and instead of taking the open shot, they elect to drive for a more contested look. Good things can happen when one drives, but you can’t be afraid to take the open look. Then there are situations in which the ball needs to move around one or two more times to find the open man, but instead a poor shot is taken. These issues aren’t unique to any one player, either. Everybody can and needs to do a lot better.
With all of this said, Oklahoma is still in a solid position for a decent seed in the NCAA Tournament if the guys can pull it together. As of this past Sunday, the Sooners would be projected as a 4-seed in the tournament (per the committee).
So the silver lining through all of these struggles has been that the damage to the resume has not been as bad as it seems. Because the Big 12 is so deep and difficult, Oklahoma’s schedule has a lot of built-in respect from a national perspective. Also, the Sooners largely took care of business in the non-conference portion of the schedule, which will carry a lot of weight when comparing resumes leading up to Selection Sunday.
What Oklahoma needs to do going forward is emphasize the effort on the floor. Winning every game is unrealistic, but routinely losing the effort battle is and should always be unacceptable. Also, with all the doubters coming out in full force, there’s no better time than now to cancel out the noise and galvanize each other. I would bet that nobody is more frustrated than those players and their coaches who have all been working for a chance to make a championship run in March. Now, can this team shape that frustration into determination? All the right people are in place to make that happen. Now it’s just about getting to work.
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