Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield confident Sooners can once again exceed expectations

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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.”

Nevada’s Jordan Caroline pulls out of 2018 NBA Draft

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Jordan Caroline has opted to pull his name out of the 2018 NBA Draft as he will return to Nevada for his senior season, he announced on Saturday.

The 6-foot-7 Caroline put together a strong season for the Wolf Pack as he averaged 17.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game as Nevada made the Sweet 16 behind one of the most talented offenses in the country.

Caroline’s return is a huge boost for Nevada as they still await the NBA draft decisions of Caleb and Cody Martin.

Currently ranked No. 17 in the NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25 (without the Martin twins), the Wolf Pack will still have a ton of talent around Caroline next season. Five-star freshman center Jordan Brown recently committed to Nevada. The program also a number of talented transfers entering the mix, including Tre’Shawn Thomas, Nisre Zouzoua and Ehab Amin.

If the Martin twins return to school (and that is a big if) then Nevada could have a potentially elite offense next season. But even if the Martin twins go pro, Nevada should still be the favorite in the Mountain West and a threat to once again make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Dewan Huell returning to Miami for junior season

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Miami received some positive news on Saturday afternoon as the school announced the return of forward Dewan Huell for his junior season.

After testing the NBA draft waters without an agent, the 6-foot-11 Huell will be back for the Hurricanes. Starting all 32 games for the program last season, Huell averaged 11.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting 57 percent from the floor.

“After getting feedback from NBA teams and talking it over with my family and coaches, I would like to announce that I will be returning to Miami for my junior season,” Huell said in the release. “I’m really excited to get back to work with my brothers so we can accomplish more than ever during the 2018-19 season.”

A former McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school, Huell’s return gives the Hurricanes stability in the front court for next season as he’ll play with other returning players like Sam Waardenburg and Ebuka Izundu. With Miami losing both Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown early to the 2018 NBA Draft, Huell could be expected to provide more offensive production as a junior.

Bruce Weber receives contract extension at Kansas State

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Kansas State and head coach Bruce Weber have agreed to a two-year contract extension, according to a release from the school.

After leading the Wildcats to a surprising Elite Eight appearance in March, Weber will be the head coach at Kansas State through the 2022-23 season, which gives him another five seasons to work with. Weber will be paid $2.5 million in 2018-19 and he’ll receive a $100,000 increase to his salary in each remaining contract year.

Weber had already signed a two-year extension in August 2017, but this move gives the veteran head coach more job security (and positive recruiting perception) for the next few seasons.

“We are very fortunate to have not only such an outstanding basketball coach but also a man in Coach Weber who conducts his program with integrity and class and is widely respected across the nation,” Kansas State Director of Athletics Gene Taylor said. “Certainly last season was one of the most memorable postseason runs in our program’s history, and we are excited for next season and the years ahead under Coach Weber’s leadership.”

With Kansas State returning most of its roster from last season, including the return of guard Barry Brown from the 2018 NBA Draft process, expectations are sky-high for Weber and the Wildcats this season. Currently ranked as the No. 8 team in the NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25, Kansas State’s veteran club could give Kansas a serious run for a Big 12 regular season title this season.

Northwestern loses incoming freshman point guard

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Northwestern and incoming freshman point guard Jordan Lathon are parting ways. The 6-foot-4 Lathon was viewed as a potential candidate to replace Bryant McIntosh at lead guard for the Wildcats this season, but Northwestern has reportedly revoked his offer of admission and basketball scholarship.

It is unclear why Lathon was unable to be admitted into Northwestern, but the school’s VP for University Relations, Alan Cubbage, gave a statement to Inside NU’s Davis Rich and Caleb Friedman.

“Northwestern University has revoked its offers of admission and an athletic scholarship for Jordan Lathon, a recruit for the Northwestern men’s basketball team,” the statement said. “Out of respect for the privacy of the student, the University will have no further public comment.”

Lathon later acknowledged the situation in a tweet explaining to fans that he will no longer be attending Northwestern.

While it is unclear why Lathon and Northwestern are parting ways, other high-major programs are already very interested in bringing in Lathon for next season. Oklahoma State immediately jumped in with a scholarship offer. There is also speculation that Lathon, a native of Grandview, Missouri, could also hear from the in-state Tigers as well.

It’ll be interesting to see where Lathon lands, and how this also affects Northwestern’s point guard situation. The loss of a four-year starter like McIntosh will be tough to fill, especially since Lathon was committed to Northwestern since last June. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Wildcats and head coach Chris Collins seek out a veteran point guard graduate transfer to try and get some immediate help.

Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr. returning to school

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Nebraska received some important news on Friday night as senior guard James Palmer Jr. will be back for next season.

The 6-foot-6 Palmer had tested the NBA draft waters, but he decided to return to the Cornhuskers. After putting up 17.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game last season, Palmer is expected to be an All-Big Ten candidate once again this season. Palmer shot 44 percent from the floor and 30 percent from three-point range last season.

After transferring in from Miami, Palmer became the Huskers’ go-to scorer last season in helping Nebraska to a 22-win season and NIT appearance.

With Palmer back, Nebraska will have some legitimate expectations for the upcoming season, especially if the team’s second-leading scorer, Isaac Copeland Jr., also returns from the NBA draft process.