Does Oklahoma really have a NCAA pulse?

February 1, 2012

So you win a couple games against Kansas State, does that mean you are bound for the NCAA tournament? If you are 2011 Colorado, then no, you are not. The Buffaloes beat a good K-State  team three times in their final Big 12 season and didn’t get an invite. But can Lon Kruger’s first Oklahoma team use its two wins over K-State to propel a second-half surge to the tournament?

 

Steven Pledger will try to lead OU on a late-season charge. Image courtesy soonersports.com.

SI.com’s bubble watch has the Sooners “in the mix” while ESPN’s version has them with “work left to do.” Both pretty much carry the same sentiment: the Sooners are far from being in a comfortable place, but midway into the conference schedule they do indeed have a NCAA pulse. And after an 0-3 conference start that feels pretty good.

According to rpiratings.com, the Sooners are #70 in RPI and have played the 44th hardest schedule in the country. The computer numbers won’t save them from their uninspiring record (13-7, 3-5). Neither will any of their non-conference wins, the best being victories over Oral Roberts and Arkansas, which both merit nothing more than a shrug.

A 9-9 conference record would give the Sooners a prayer at getting in (with a couple conference tournament wins), and although it’d be hard to get there it’s not utterly impossible. They’ll need a true marquee win, and their best chance at that is probably Missouri at home on February 6. The Tigers did thrash Oklahoma in Columbia, but Missouri is 3-2 on the road thus far and all have been close games.

My gut reaction after looking at the remaining schedule had Oklahoma going 4-6 the rest of the way, with wins over Iowa State (home), Tech (road), Texas (home) and Ok-State. The losses were against Kansas (road), Missouri (home), Iowa State (road), Baylor (road), Texas (road) and Texas A&M (road). Clearly they’d need to steal two of the tougher games, and Texas and Texas A&M may be possible.

Are they likely to make a run and get in? Probably not. But the exciting thing for Sooner fans is that there is a chance, and that if Oklahoma can take care of business, any marquee win they may get could put them over the top. The seemingly dead team rising from the dead to make a run at an invite also seems to be in style this season, take a look at Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.

 


OU wins in Manhattan, shocker

January 29, 2012

Oklahoma’s 63-60 win at Kansas State flew under the Big 12 radar yesterday. That tends to happen when Kansas loses a conference game, because it seems that, well, Kansas never loses a conference game.

Lon has "1" now: One win over a ranked team at OU.

But I’d go out on a limb and say that Sooners win in Manhattan was the most surprising of yesterday’s result. The Kansas loss wasn’t totally unexpected: you knew Hilton would be jazzed up, the Cyclones had played the Jayhawks tough in Lawrence, and when crunch time came Royce White could exchange blows with Thomas Robinson.

Texas giving Baylor a run for its money in Waco wasn’t a shocker either because the Longhorns had been playing better as of late even if they were getting wins. And Missouri not blowing away Texas Tech at home raised an eyebrow, but it seems the Tigers may have hit a bit of a cold patch. The way they were shooting all season that isn’t totally unexpected.

The Sooners gave the Wildcats their second home loss of the year, and in the process picked up the first win over a ranked opponent in the Lon Kruger era. Steven Pledger (3o points, 11-17 FG) gave one of those super-human performances you generally need to beat a good team on the road. And he especially needed to play like that because K-State did a good job limiting Andrew Fitzgerald (3 points, 1-7 FG).

It’s odd to see a K-State Frank Martin team lose at home, but especially to see that in a game that should have been a “taking care of business” affair, and especially when they need to keep piling up wins to really feel secure about a NCAA bid. They are probably still safe right now but they certainly can’t afford any more slip ups. And I’m sure Martin will make that crystal clear in his own special way over the next few days.

The Wildcats still have trips to Columbia, Waco and Austin on their schedule as well as a home game with Kansas. That’s definitely no picnic.

As for the Sooners, I am sure Kruger is pleased his team was able to pick up at least one win in a brutal 5-game stretch against the conference’s five best teams. After playing Baylor and K-State, they’ll now head to Kansas and then get Iowa State and Missouri at home.

If they complete a state of Kansas sweep then I will be floored and declare Kruger the “Kansas killer.” But Iowa State could be a winnable game at home, and a 2-3 mark in that stretch would be an encouraging thing.

 


Missouri-OU Preview

January 3, 2012

Coming into the season I thought Oklahoma be far and away the worst team in the Big 12. With a new coach and a lack of proven players, it seemed to be the easy choice.

Turns out, I could not have been more wrong. Texas Tech and Oklahoma State seem to be determined to battle it out for worst team honors, while Lon Kruger has the Sooners playing great basketball.

Junior guard Steven Pledger leads the entire conference in scoring, at almost 19 points a game. Forward combo Romero Osby and Andrew Fitzgerald are both double-digit scorers, and lead the fourth best rebounding team in the country. Overall the Sooners average 77 points a game, which is more than enough to keep up with the high scoring Tigers.

The big question will be who on the Sooners can contain Phil Pressey. The Tigers’ super-quick guard is almost impossible to keep out of the lane, but the Sooners are one of the better defending teams in the league. It seems like the best way to defend Pressey is to give him space and tempt into shooting jumpers. Despite his remarkable ability to make plays, Pressey is still an average shooter, but often believes otherwise when left open. Contain Pressey, and Missouri becomes an easier team to defeat.

For the Tigers, tonight will be all about keeping things the same. Keep moving the ball, keep pushing the pace, keep scoring. Missouri is the best shooting team in the entire country at 51.7%. They are the second highest scoring team in the country at 86.2 points a night. With nearly 17 assists a night, they rank in the top 20. So the question is, can Missouri keep it up. Defense gets tougher in conference play, and it becomes harder to speed up the game, something that Mike Anderson found out quite a bit in his five years.

Expect Missouri to feed Ricardo Ratliffe early, which will keep the perimeter shot open. Ratliffe is one of the most efficient scorers in the country, making 76% of his field goal attempts. Marcus Denmon, the Tigers’ leading scorer, has been a bit off lately, shooting just 10-33 from the field his last three games. For Missouri to go where they want to go this conference season, Denmon has to be the National Player of the Year caliber player he was the first 10 games of the season.

After essentially playing flawlessly the first 11 games of the season, sophomore guard Phil Pressey has regressed at bit the last two games. His turnovers are up, his field goal attempts are up, and Missouri’s margin of victory is down. Pressey isn’t a good shooter, and needs to recognize that during the game. When he’s driving into the paint, it sets up all four of his teammates, and it also creates chances for Phil to get to the free throw line. There is no reason for Phil to lead the Tigers in scoring, not when he is surrounded by such good shooting teammates.

This is going to be a hard game for Missouri to win, but they should continue their unbeaten season. Mizzou Arena is a great advantage, and Oklahoma probably can’t stop Missouri enough. The Tigers are simply too deep and too good at shooting. The best way to beat Missouri is to limit their scoring, and play the game in the 60s. Oklahoma doesn’t really want to do that though, they prefer high scoring games, which plays right into Missouri’s hands. Missouri will start their final Big 12 season with a hard-fought win.

Missouri 85 Oklahoma 79


Opening night roundup: A few scares

November 12, 2011

The opening game in college basketball is supposed to be a feel good romp. Tonight there were a few tense moments in the early games; a few “how is this happening?” moments. But thus far, everyone in the conference can exhale.

Kansas State and Oklahoma had to overcome half-time deficits to win. Missouri wasn’t that much better, as they enjoyed only a two point lead at the break.

I was bouncing around a lot and didn’t focus on one game in particular, so I’d be making up any comprehensive analysis I put on here. Thus, here is a quick overview of the action:

McGruder (eventually) stepped up, and boy did Frank Martin need that. Image courtesy foxsportskansascity.com

Charleston Southern 67 – Kansas State 72 

The head-scratching moment of the night came in Manhattan, where the Wildcats found themselves down by 15 at halftime. Had they been trailing by a few points it wouldn’t have been that surprising, since for the first time in the Frank Martin era they don’t had a clear cut go-to guy.

But as you’d expect, Martin had the Wildcats ready to mount a rally in the second half. Rodney McGruder began to assert himself more offensively towards the end of the first half, and ended up as the game’s leading scorer with 20 points. McGruder also pitched in with 10 rebounds. Jordan Henriquez was solid, and Will Spradling made some key plays late, allowing the Wildcats to take their first lead with a little over three minutes left.

Idaho State 74 – Oklahoma 78

Well don’t I look stupid (at least right now). I had wrote the other day that Andrew Fitzgerald and Cameron Clark, and to a lesser extent Steven Pledger, would handle virtually all of the scoring load for OU this season. That is 99 percent likely to still be the case, but on this night the three combined for only 9 points (though Pledger was suspended).

Despite the fact OU did find itself behind at half, they have some things to be encouraged about other than simply escaping Lloyd Noble with a win. They won on a night their two presumptive “biggest” contributors didn’t score much. Romero Osby, the hyped up transfer, actually looked the part in filling up the stat sheet (17 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists).

Their point guard play, a concern heading into the season, looked alright in an extremely small sample size. Newcomer Sam Grooms had a nice A/TO rate (8-2) and incumbent Carl Blair wasn’t so bad either (5-2) after struggling mightily last year in that category. They also got an unexpected scoring boost from guard Calvin Newell, Jr. who had a great time chucking up three’s (4-11).

Southeast Missouri State 68 – Missouri 83 

The Tigers hit a rough patch midway though the first half with SEMO leading by as many as six. But Missouri swung momentum with a run into halftime and didn’t look back in the second half. Marcus Denmon had a predictably good game, doing what he does best: scoring (20 points) and not turning the ball over (0 TO’s). Kim English and Ricardo Ratliffe also played well.

The interesting thing for Mizzou was that Frank Haith’s worst fears were realized right away. Without Laurence Bowers the Tigers are very thin in the frontcourt. Behind Ratliffe, only Steve Moore and Kadeem Green provide any size, and Green’s first minute tonight was his first in official NCAA competition. Moore and Ratliffe have an affinity for fouling, will probably cause a ton of problems for Haith this year.

He got some experience shuffling his lineups in this manner against SEMO as Moore picked up a few early fouls in the first half and was rendered basically useless throughout the game because of this (12 minutes, 4 fouls). Ratliffe picked up his third foul early in the second half, and the tightrope act began.


Oklahoma: A Preview

November 5, 2011

Lon Kruger may not have been the sexy hire for Oklahoma. He wasn’t Shaka Smart or one of the other flavor of the week coaches whose name was thrown around after the tournament. But Kruger was probably the right hire and one that should get OU hoops back to  it’s traditional status as a yearly NCAA tournament program.

Kruger has won at every major school he’s been at. His winning percentages at Illinois, Kansas State and UNLV were all above 62 percent, and the one place it wasn’t (Florida), he made it to a Final Four. At Florida he also dealt with inheriting sanctions of a previous coaching staff.

Something that shouldn’t be discounted is Kruger’s stint as coach of the Atlanta Hawks. He didn’t light the NBA on fire but that experience in the league is there. Since the allure of the NBA can be such a big deal in recruiting, Kruger should be able to exploit whatever connections he still has left with the league.

Key Losses: G Cade Davis (leading scorer, leading rebounder)
Key Gains: Romero Osby (Miss. St. transfer), G Sam Grooms (Ju-Co., Rivals 3 star),C Casey Arent (Ju-Co., Rivals 3 star)

Frontcourt 

Fitzgerald will need to lead OU this season. Image courtesy weblogs.baltimoresun.com.

The story of the Sooners frontcourt begins with Andrew Fitzgerald (6’8″, Jr.), who was the team’s second-leading scorer last season (12.6 ppg). Fitzgerald took a quarter of OU’s shots last season, and will probably need to chuck it up even more without Davis around. He’s a decent shooter but will really need to improve on the glass as he becomes the team’s de facto leader.

Like any transfer, there is a lot of hype around the former Mississippi State Bulldog Romero Osby (6’8”, Jr.). Jeff Capel even declared him the Sooners most talented player last season. OU better hope the hype is real because Osby is desperately needed to bail out a thin frontcourt. Big body Casey Arent (6’10”, Jr.) and C.J. Washington (6’7” Sr.) should also be called on the contribute.

Backcourt

Capel put a lot on then-freshman Cameron Clark (6’6”, So.) last season, as he played the highest percentage of minutes out of any freshman in the conference (83.3 %Min). In fact only iron man Diante Garrett, Scott Christopherson, Keiton Page and his former teammate Cade Davis played a higher percentage of their team’s minutes than Clark.

One of the only bright spots for OU last season was that Clark handled that workload well. He was a solid shooter (47.4 FG%) and most encouraging for a freshman, didn’t turn the ball over that much. The key for Clark will be how he handles the increasing defensive focus that he will face. This might have been a problem for him last year: after scoring 25 points against Baylor, he only scored more than 10 points four times in OU’s last 11 games.

Steven Pledger (6’4”, Jr.) might benefit from the increased focus on Clark. Pledger is a decent three point threat and is another guy, by virtue of his experience/class, that will need to step up to help offset the loss of Davis’ points. Carl Blair (6’2”, Jr.) started at point guard last year, and although he had a nice assist rate, he turned the ball over far too much and didn’t shoot particularly well. It appears that Kruger will look at a hired gun as his starter (at least early on): Ju-Co transfer Sam Grooms (6’1” , Jr.).

Final Take: Kruger doesn’t have the good fortune that Frank Haith and Billy Kennedy have of walking into a new job with a roster that can compete right away. But he isn’t walking into an utter disaster in Norman either.

Oklahoma will most likely toil at the bottom of the league standings this year. But that is to be expected with a new coach and what had transpired over the last two seasons. The good news is that Clark and Fitzgerald are intriguing pieces: an inside-outside combo that could find enough offense to at least compete on most nights. It also doesn’t appear either will have the chance to bolt to the NBA after this year (unless Clark goes crazy). So if nothing else Kruger has some building blocks for the future.


Preseason poll – four teams get a 1st place vote

October 14, 2011

Basketball season starts this weekend.

For the next couple days, college basketball will consist of loud player introductions, flashing lights, dunks and “practice sessions” that might look nothing at all like a real practice.

It’s time to take a look at how the Big 12 COACHES voted in the league’s poll of the ten teams. Coaches could not vote for their own.

——

Dash Harris and his Aggie teammates would like to unseat Kansas as the league's best team. Photo thanks Chron.com.

This year’s preseason poll has co-favorites: KANSAS and TEXAS A&M. The Jayhawks got the most first-place votes from the coaches (5), while Texas A&M got two. However, each team garnered 73 points total from the ballots.

The Jayhawks have at least shared the conference title for seven straight seasons. But while they are accustomed to losing talent, there is less depth in place at the moment than there has been in some prior years. Greg, one of this blog’s authors, has mentioned Thomas Robinson as a likely POY. I agree, but the Morris twins were just awesome and those two alone will be tough to replace.

Texas A&M has a new coach this season, Billy Kennedy. The Aggies, if not great in recent years, have been consistently solid.

The three of us at this blog have a running joke called “The List,” of college players who seem like they should have graduated and yet are still playing. (Typically these are just guys who played a lot as freshmen and stayed around.) Fortunately, A&M has two candidates for The List in guard Dash Harris and forward David Loubeau. That bodes well for experience.

They also add 6’7″ junior Khris Middleton, a big scorer last year. He has played in every game during his career.

Kansas State was last year’s preseason No. 1.

Team No. 3 is BAYLOR, which received two first-place votes. Baylor returns four seniors, super soph big guy Perry Jones and a really hyped guard in Deuce Bello. I expect Baylor will once again be one of the league’s most athletic teams (as is often the case). The Bears have underachieved two of the last three years and made the Elite Eight the other year. This is a VERY interesting team.

MISSOURI, you’ll recall, is still part of the Big 12. The Tigers were picked fourth and received one first place vote, despite a seemingly devastating recent injury to forward Laurence Bowers which will keep him off the floor all year. Bowers has been arguably Mizzou’s best player over the past two seasons. I look forward to seeing whether Missouri’s tempo shifts from the frenetic press, now that Frank Haith is coach. Either way, a lot will be required of senior big man Ricardo Ratliffe on offense and defense.

Perenially talented TEXAS takes the No. 5 spot. A team that spent part of last year in the Top 5 nationally seeks to improve its recent NCAA tournament struggles. The Horns are extremely young with six freshmen. Names you’ll recognize include 6’10” senior Clint Chapman and 6’1″ junior J’Covan Brown. Alexis Wangmene (6’7″ from Cameroon) is also a senior.

Korie Lucious (34) and Chris Allen are now Cyclones and might solidify Iowa State's best team in a decade. Photo thanks to Des Moines Register.

KANSAS STATE is team six. The Wildcats’ early months last year were an absolute disaster. Denis Clemente’s absence was noticeable, but K-State got a huge upset win at home over Kansas and turned things around somewhat. They didn’t live up to preseason expectations but I think they can exceed them this year. K-State returns a lot of guys you will remember, including guards Rodney McGruder (junior), Shane Southwell (sophomore) and Will Spradling (sophomore). They also bring back 6’7 senior forward Jamar Samuels.

That group has plenty of talent, so don’t assume K-State will be average just because Jacob Pullen is gone.

OKLAHOMA STATE takes the No. 7 spot. Travis Ford brings two seniors, guard Keiton Page and JUCO forward Darrell Williams. Williams led the team in rebounding last year. J.P. Olukemi will be important again as a junior. Freshman Le’Bryan Nash is a McDonald’s All-American.

IOWA STATE, in its second year under Fred Hoiberg, is the eighth choice. This is another team I look forward to watching. Finally Royce White, the 6’8″ redshirt sophomore from Minnesota gets to play. Adding instant experience are senior Michigan State transfers at guard – Chris Allen and Korie Lucious. It’s been a long time since Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley made ISU a contender but perhaps the Cyclones are on their way.

OKLAHOMA and TEXAS TECH are tied for ninth and last in this year’s poll. The Sooners have three seniors who have played sparingly. T.J. Franklin sees little floor time. The other two, C.J. Washington and Barry Honoré, are JUCO transfers who were reserves last year. Oklahoma looks very different than it used to and is clearly still in a phase of change from the Kelvin Sampson era.

6’10” Robert Lewandowski is the only senior for the Red Raiders of Texas Tech, now coached by Billy Gillispie. There are eight high school freshmen on the roster along with several JUCO transfers, which is exciting when your team has recently struggled. Hopefully Tech can perform a little better than last year and work toward improving that program.

We will have our own Big 12 preseason poll before the season starts.


Last Night in the Big 12

February 10, 2011

Three games last night, two real fun ones, and one involving Texas.

Texas 68 Oklahoma 52

OU has been better lately, but they never stood a chance in this game. Texas had control the entire time, and got one step closer to being unbeaten in conference play. All five Texas starters scored in double figures, led by Jordan Hamilton with 20. Dogus Balbay even scored 12, on 5-6 shooting.

Andrew Fitzgerald led the over matched Sooners with 16.

Baylor 74 Nebraska 70

One of the two really good games from last night, the Bears needed a last second block from Anthony Jones to keep Nebraska from pulling off the upset. The game was close throughout, and Baylor nearly gave it away with some sloppy play late, but Nebraska returned the favor, falling just short again.

LaceDarius Dunn hit a big lay-up to give Baylor a 71-67 lead, then Nebraska’s Toney McCray had his three pointer blocked by Anthony Jones, a sequence that sealed the game for the Bears and put them at 6-4 in conference play. Dunn finished the night with 24 points, mostly from the free throw line, to go with four rebounds and four assists.

This game summed up a lot of the Nebraska games this season, they fought hard the whole time, kept it close, but in the end they just didn’t have the raw talent to win the game. Watch the Anthony Jones play again, and it is literally the case of him being really long and athletic, something the Huskers just don’t have. Until Doc Sadler starts getting more talented recruits, Nebraska is going to continue being this team. Close, but not close enough.

Now Baylor is sitting in the driver’s seat towards the third seed in the conference tournament. They’ve been playing better lately, making the plays they need to make at the end of games. It will be very interesting to see if they can keep it up, since this isn’t the first time they’ve shown flashes of being a good team.

Texas A&M 73 Colorado 70 OT

The game of the night, and maybe the best Big 12 game I’ve seen in a few weeks. Colorado was in the control the entire game, but you could tell that TAM just needed a few extra minutes of basketball to take control. B.J. Holmes hit a three pointer with 1.4 seconds left to tie the game and send it to overtime, and TAM was able to escape with a big win.

Colorado just couldn’t score in overtime, running bad set after bad set, and TAM did a great job making sure Alec Burks took tough jumpers. It was very impressive that the Aggies were able to get the win, especially since they did their best to give it away with two dumb technical fouls in the second half (one of those was on Mark Turgeon, who doesn’t seem to time his technical fouls very well). Still, the Aggies overcame it, were able to keep the game close with good defense on Burks, and then set up Holmes for the big shot.

It was the Aggies ability to force Burks into contested jumpers that ultimately won them the game. He was getting to the foul line with ease, but the Aggies allowed him to catch the ball, then collapsed on him around the foul line. He made some moves, but still couldn’t get free.

The loss means Colorado is now 4-6 in the Big 12 and in need of some wins. The NCAA tourney is still in reach, they just need to start pulling out some of these close games. For TAM, they get the win the so desperately needed, and now have a soft schedule to finish out the year.