LAS VEGAS — Prior to the start of the 2013-14 season, the Oklahoma Sooners were expected to be a team firmly entrenched in the middle of the pack in the Big 12. While head coach Lon Kruger did return key players such as Cameron Clark and Buddy Hield from a group that won 20 games and reached the NCAA tournament in 2012-13, the fact of the matter was that the Sooners had to account for the loss of their top three scorers from that team. Whether or not the Sooners would meet or exceed those preseason expectations depended upon what their returnees were able to do, and even with their NCAA tournament loss to North Dakota State, 2013-14 represented a successful season for the Sooners.
Oklahoma finished the season with a 23-10 overall record, going 12-6 in Big 12 play to finish in sole possession of second place. And after losing three double-digit scorers at the end of the 2012-13 season, the Sooners finished the year with four players averaging at least 10.3 points per game. Leading the way was Hield, who emerged as one of the nation’s most improved players and earned second team All-Big 12 honors.
Hield averaged a team-best 16.5 points to go along with 4.4 rebounds per contest, shooting 44.5% from the field and 38.6% from beyond the arc. With his ability to find looks anywhere on the court, Hield developed into not only a better shot-maker but a more efficient offensive threat as well in 2013-14.
“My expectations [last year] were to be more aggressive and be a better scorer for my team, especially with Ro [Romero Osby] and the other seniors gone,” Hield said at the LeBron James Skills Academy. “I had to pick up the slack and I’m a guy who’s capable of doing that. I spent a lot of time in the gym working on my game [last summer].
“Nobody thought we were going to be as good as we were but we had a lot of confidence, and Coach Kruger did a really good job of getting us ready for games and making sure we stuck to our game plan.”
With Osby and Amath M’Baye gone, Oklahoma wasn’t going to be the interior-dominant team it was in 2012-13. As a result they were a more perimeter-oriented group in 2013-14, with Isaiah Cousins (11.0 ppg) and Jordan Woodard (10.6 ppg) joining Hield as guards scoring in double figures and Clark being an effective scorer in the mid-range area while also making 43.5% of his shots from beyond the arc.
One season after ranking ninth in the Big 12 in three-point field goal point percentage, scoring just over 21 percent of their points from beyond the arc (per statsheet.com), the Sooners scored a league-best 31.6% of its points from three. Personnel changes forced Oklahoma to adapt, and Kruger’s Sooners proved themselves to be capable of doing so. Now with Clark having graduated, Oklahoma will once again have to adapt, and it’s something Hield and his teammates are working hard to do this summer.
“He gave us leadership and scoring. He was our ‘four-man’,” Hield said. “He was the one who exploited mismatches and made things happen for us. He was our leader.”
Also pushing Oklahoma is the feeling of disappointment felt in the aftermath of its overtime loss to North Dakota State, something that’s affecting not only the returnees but the incoming freshmen as well according to Hield.
“Everybody’s been working hard in the gym, even the freshmen,” Hield noted. “They see the older guys, the determination and the chip on our shoulders, and we just get after it. I still think about [the North Dakota State loss]. Every time someone talks about it, it just makes me sick.”
Those newcomers will be important for Oklahoma, especially considering their lack of interior depth last season and the fact that Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas will most likely have to sit out the 2014-15 season per NCAA transfer rules. Ryan Spangler, who battled night in and night out against the best big men in the Big 12, will have help in the form of freshmen Dante Buford, Khadeem Lattin and Jamuni McNease. With the opportunity to earn playing time being there for those additions, the hope for Oklahoma is that interior depth won’t be as much of an issue this time around.
Those front court additions and Oklahoma’s depth and experience on the perimeter will lead to expectations higher than the ones held for the Sooners prior to last season. And while Kansas has won at least a share of the last 10 Big 12 regular season titles, multiple teams entered the summer confident in their chances of winning the conference this winter. And that includes Oklahoma, with its confident junior shooting guard looking forward to taking on the challenge of making a run at a conference title.
“We’re going to win the Big 12. I’m saying it now, we’re going to win the Big 12,” Hield said last week, with his words grabbing the attention of another Big 12 representative at the camp. “I have confidence in my team and the guys coming back. Ryan, Isaiah, Jordan … we have a good, veteran team coming back and I feel that we’re going to take it to the next level.”