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No. 9 Oklahoma hands No. 8 Texas Tech first Big 12 loss

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In a matchup of two of the nation’s top point guards, both Trae Young and Keenan Evans would find it difficult to truly get into a groove from a shooting stand point. But Young would do a better job of getting his teammates quality shots, and his “supporting cast” stepped forward to help lead the Sooners to the 75-65 victory in Norman.

As a result there are no more undefeated (in conference play) teams in the Big 12, with Texas Tech dropping to 3-1 and Oklahoma boasting the same record. Here are three takeaways from Oklahoma’s win.

1. Trae Young was better in non-scoring areas Tuesday night than he was Saturday in Morgantown

As was the case in Oklahoma’s loss at West Virginia, Young struggled with his shooting in the first half against Texas Tech, but he finished with 27 points with 22 being scored on 6-for-11 shooting in the second stanza. However Young was able to get to the foul line, making nine of his 11 attempts, and even more importantly did a much better job of taking care of the basketball.

After turning the ball over eight times against West Virginia’s defense, Young cut that number in half against another quality defense in Texas Tech while dishing out eight assists. It goes without saying that the Big 12 is loaded with quality lead guards, so Young will be challenged consistently as the season continues to wear on. But there aren’t many defenses that can get after teams like the ones at West Virginia and Texas Tech. For Young to take some of the lessons learned in Saturday’s loss and apply them to Tuesday’s game, keeping his cool and not allowing the defense to get him out of control, is a good sign for he and the Sooners moving forward.

2. Texas Tech’s other starters had an uncharacteristically tough night on offense.

Keenan Evans didn’t have his best night, scoring 19 points but doing so on 7-for-17 shooting from the field and he also had just one assist (averaging 3.6 per game entering Tuesday). But unlike Young, who was joined by two other starters who scored in double figures, Evans had no such help as Texas Tech’s other four starters combined to score 17 points on 6-for-18 shooting from the field.

It didn’t help matters that forward Zach Smith was out with a right foot injury, with Zhaire Smith moving into the starting lineup as a result, but the game served as a reminder — if it was somehow needed — of just how much the Red Raiders rely on Evans offensively. Oklahoma limited his opportunities to make plays, forcing the senior guard into many challenged shots throughout the course of the night. Texas Tech received good scoring from its bench, with Jarrett Culver and Tommy Hamiltion IV scoring nine apiece and Brandone Francis chipping in with eight. But they needed more production from the remaining starters than what they received.

3. Khadeem Lattin was a star in the paint for the Sooners.

Prior to Tuesday’s game, Lattin last scored in double figures in Oklahoma’s win over North Texas on November 30. Since then he’s had as many eight-point efforts as scoreless ones: two. Against Texas Tech the senior forward’s presence was felt on both ends of the floor, as he tallied 11 points, eight rebounds and seven blocked shots in 28 minutes of action to supplement the efforts of Young and Christian James (15 points).

Lattin isn’t a “traditional” back to the basket big man who Oklahoma can clear out sides of the floor for and let him go to work. But that’s fine, especially when taking into consideration the presence of a playmaker in Trae Young who can set the table for Lattin and Jamuni McNeace around the basket. But if Oklahoma is to turn this run of success into a deep tournament run, they’ll need consistent production from Lattin with regards to both his defense and his offense. After a standout performance against Texas Tech, it will be interesting to see if Lattin can build upon it moving forward.

Lost Pressure: How Oklahoma freshman phenom Trae Young ignores expectations and will get the Sooners back on track

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KANSAS CITY — Trae Young knew he had slipped up as soon as he said it.

Surrounded by reporters, the five-star freshman uttered a word he loathes, going so far as to refuse its very existence, when asked the pros and cons of staying in his hometown to be Oklahoma University’s star point guard.

“I know it’s a lot of pressure,” he said, wanting to reel the word back in as soon as it entered the atmosphere inside the Sprint Center at Big 12 media day Tuesday.

“I don’t know why I said pressure,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t use the word pressure. It’s just a lot on my plate, is what I say.”

“I don’t use that word. I’m going to hit myself later for saying that.”

Whatever word you want to use to describe it, the spotlight will be on Young this season as the centerpiece of the Sooners’ hoped bounce-back season following last year’s 11-20 record coming off a Final Four the previous season.

“He’s done a really good job of making it about his teammates and making it about others, the program,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said, “and he’s a guy that could go off individually and hasn’t done that. He’s very — he’s smart with regard to the value of doing things as a group and he knows, too, that he needs his teammates to play well and he’s doing everything he can to help encourage them and motivate them to do everything they can and certainly his teammates appreciate what he can do.”

The whole of Oklahoma knows what Young can do after he averaged 42.6 points per game as a senior at Norman North High School, which is all of 4 miles north of the Sooners’ Lloyd Noble Center home. He joins legends Blake Griffin, Wayman Tisdale and Jeff Webster as Oklahomans who stayed home with the Sooners after being a McDonald’s All-American.

That makes walking campus something of an event for Young.

“I’m the type of guy, I like to interact with a lot of people, like meeting new people,” he said. “To be able to see all the people on campus, to see what it’s like to be a college student, it’s been fun.

“Sometimes I’m late to class just because I’m getting stopped, but it’s fun. I love it.”

Young had plenty of opportunity to bolt from the familiarity of home to one of the country’s basketball factories that takes in highly-rated recruits and churns out highly-drafted prospects every single year.  He sought counsel from a pair of his peers in the same situation.

“People like Mohammed (Bamba),” Young said of the potential No. 1 draft pick now at Texas. “Me and him are really close. Him and my best friend (Missouri freshman) Michael Porter. We talk almost every day. Us three are really close.”

That allowed them to compare notes.

Lon Kruger (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

“We were both recruited by Kentucky and Kansas,” Bamba said, “and we just kind of picked each other’s brains over what we thought.

“It was just good to have someone you could relate to.”

In the end, though, Young’s decision centered on one simple truth.

“He wanted,” Bamba said, “to be home.”

Young now straddles something between savior and servant. The Sooners, of course, hardly need saving just 18 months removed from a Final Four, but an 11-20 season doesn’t exactly create endearing memories for anyone. Young has the talent to make an instant impact, but not just with his prodigious talent and prolific scoring.

“His ability to lead and bring in a group of people,” Bamba said. “The fact he was able to do it at these different camps where people don’t necessarily care about each other. The fact he was able to do it at camp, shows he’ll be able to do it anywhere.

“He was big on making sure he wouldn’t try to make a home run play. He’ll try to do different things to set it up, get the best shot possible. Which is what a point guard should do.”

The crazy-hyped freshman phenom who also happens to be the hometown hero operates in a somewhat delicate space when first arriving in a locker room. An ability to spread the love on the court goes a long way.

“Trae has outstanding skill,” Kruger said. “Anytime you’ve got a player like that, he’s got an opportunity to make players around him better by attracting attention, by driving and attracting help defender and kicking.”

Which is exactly what Young says he’s looking to do.

“I feel like I’m very prepared to come in, do what coach Kruger says, push the pace and do what he tells me to do,” Young said. “Me and him, we watch film all the time. Almost every day. That helps coming in and knowing what he wants.”

Young may have the most potential of any Sooner recruit since Blake Griffin stepped on campus a decade ago, but it’s a Sooner who was lightly regarded as a recruit and grew into a lottery pick that begs comparison. Buddy Hield came to Oklahoma with few believing his NBA prospects, but became one of the best in school history through a legendary work ethic. That drive is something that their mutual coach believes his newest star shares.

“I think that they’re both equally motivated,” Kruger said. “That’s the key. Whatever makes you love getting up and working to be better every day. I think both are kind of equal in that way, kind of from a different starting point. Both are very competitive, and both want to do really great things.”

A lofty comparison for a player who’s yet to take a competitive dribble. It’s one that a freshman, playing in his hometown, with the weight of massive expectation and a boundless professional future might shrink from.

Trae Young, though?

“There’s no such thing,” he said, “as pressure.”

VIDEO: Oklahoma’s Kruger, Hield discuss loss to Villanova

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No. 2 Oklahoma was on the wrong side of history Saturday night, as they lost 95-51 to No. 2 Villanova in what now stands as the biggest blowout in the history of the Final Four. After a solid start to the game nothing seemed to work for the West Region champions, with guard Buddy Hield shooting 1-for-8 from three and the team shooting just over 31 percent from the field.

By comparison Villanova shot 71.4 percent from the field, a number that’s second in Final Four history behind the 78.6 percent the 1985 Villanova team shot in its win over Georgetown. And it should be noted that Jay Wright’s team shot as well as they did with the three-point shot, which wasn’t a part of the college game in 1985.

Both Hield and Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger were highly complimentary of the Wildcats, with Hield stating that he believes Villanova has what it takes to win Monday night.

Oklahoma to lose two assistants to head coaching jobs

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With success comes opportunity, and for assistant coaches that usually means the opportunity to run their own program.

Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger will have to account for the loss of two assistant coaches at season’s end, as it was learned Thursday that Lew Hill and Steve Henson have both been hired for head coaching jobs. Hill has been named the new head coach at UT Rio Grande Valley, and he’s been a member of Kruger’s coaching staff since 2004 when both were at UNLV.

As for Henson, he’s expected to be hired as the new head coach at UTSA where he’ll replace Brooks Thompson with this news being first reported by The Oklahoman. Like Hill, Henson began working on Kruger’s staff at UNLV in 2004. Since then the two assistants have been a part of eight trips to the NCAA tournament, three Sweet 16 appearances and this year’s trip to the Final Four.

These expected moves leave Chris Crutchfield as the lone remaining assistant on Kruger’s staff heading into the offseason.

Final Four Previews: Ranking the head coaches

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With the Final Four just two days away we’ll be taking a look at different aspects of the match-ups, one of which being a ranking for the four head coaches. With two Hall of Famers who have won national titles in one game, and two coaches who have never reached the title game in the other, that makes for interesting subplots in Saturday’s games. Without further ado, here’s the ranking of the four Final Four head coaches.

1. Roy Williams, North Carolina
Overall Record: 782-208
NCAA tournament record: 66-23; seven Final Four appearances, two national titles (2005, 2009)

Williams is one of two members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame who will coach in this weekend’s Final Four, with the other being his semifinal opponent in Jim Boeheim. Williams has led two of the sport’s most storied programs and enjoyed a great deal of success at both, winning 80.5 percent of his games and making three Final Four appearances at Kansas before returning to his alma mater in 2003.

At North Carolina, Williams’ teams have won 77.3 percent of their games, and he led the Tar Heels to national titles in 2005 and 2009. Williams has now led North Carolina to four Final Four appearances, with this year’s trip being the first for the program since 2009. In both 2005 and 2009 the Tar Heels were the favorites at the Final Four, and that will be the case this weekend as well. Can this group win it all? That remains to be seen.

2. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
Overall record: 989-346 (not accounting for games vacated by the NCAA)
NCAA tournament record: 53-30; five Final Four appearances, one national title (2003)

Boeheim and Williams, his opponent in the semifinals, have met in a Final Four before. That came back in 2003, when a Hakim Warrick blocked shot preserved the win for Syracuse over Kansas and gave the Orange their first (and only) national title. Boeheim’s led his alma mater to five Final Four appearances, and he’s reached the title game in three of the previous four trips.

Syracuse dropped a heartbreaker to Indiana in the 1987 title game, and nine years later they fell to a Kentucky team that would reach the title game in three straight years (winning in 1996 and 1998). Of the four prior teams Boeheim’s led to the Final Four none had been seeded lower than a four, so this group is a definite outlier given their status as a No. 10 seed.

3. Lon Kruger, Oklahoma
Overall record: 590-360
NCAA tournament record: 20-16; two Final Four appearances

It’s been 22 years since Kruger last led a team to the Final Four, doing so at Florida with a team that included Andrew DeClerq and Dametri Hill. Kruger’s the lone head coach to lead five different teams to the NCAA tournament, with Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV being the other four. After losing in the round of 64 in each of his first two appearances at Oklahoma, Kruger’s Sooners reached the Sweet 16 last season where the lost to Michigan State.

In addition to taking the five aforementioned schools to the NCAA tournament, Kruger’s managed to take each one to at least the Sweet 16. With guards Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard leading the way, Kruger will look to make his first-ever appearance in the national title game.

4. Jay Wright, Villanova
Overall record: 474-242
NCAA tournament record: 18-12; two Final Four appearances

After missing the NCAA tournament in each of his first three seasons at the helm at Villanova, Wright’s led the Wildcats to the Big Dance in 11 of the last 12 seasons. Add in two NCAA tournament appearances while the head coach at Hofstra (2000 and 2001), and Wright has a total of 13 trips to the tournament to his credit. From 2005-2009 Villanova reached at least the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in four of the five seasons, which included a trip to the Final Four in 2009.

After that run Villanova hit a bit of a cold stretch, not getting out of the first weekend in any of their five appearances from 2010 to 2015 and missing the tournament completely in 2012. Wright and the Wildcats got over the hump this year, and Las Vegas odds have them second in line behind North Carolina when it comes to their chances of winning the national title.

Buddy Hield leads No. 2 Oklahoma’s demolition of No. 1 Oregon

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With No. 1 Oregon and No. 2 Oklahoma being the top two seeds in the West Region, it was fair to assume that the matchup would be a close one. Lon Kruger’s Sooners, most especially national Player of the Year favorite Buddy Hield, had other ideas however. Hield scored 37 points to lead Oklahoma to their first Final Four appearance since 2002, as they soundly defeated the Ducks by the final score of 80-68.

Hield scored his 37 points on 13-for-20 shooting from the field, making eight of his 13 attempts from beyond the arc. The two-time Big 12 Player of the Year did finish with six turnovers, and if not for those miscues one has to wonder just how many points Hield could have scored. Dana Altman tried a variety of looks defensively, including a matchup zone and man-to-man, but to no avail.

Essentially, Oregon experienced a feeling that many teams faced with the task of slowing down Hield have felt this season: powerlessness.

But to boil this game down to “they had Buddy and Oregon didn’t” would be far too simplistic an approach to take. In addition to being one of the nation’s best offensive teams, Oklahoma’s also ranked 14th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers.

They don’t do it with pressure defense, but the Sooners do a good job of keeping opponents out of the lane and forcing them to make tough shots. That’s what happened to Oregon, which shot 38.9 percent from the field and 4-for-21 from beyond the arc. Oregon had turnover issues early, and that combined with Hield’s 17-point first half resulted in an 18-point halftime hole that was too much for the Pac-12 champions to climb out of.

Elgin Cook finished with 24 points to lead three Oregon players in double figures, but far too often the Ducks lacked the fluidity on offense that was a trademark of many of their 31 wins on the season.

Lon Kruger’s team has shown throughout the season that, while Hield is certainly their feature option, this is no one-man operation. On nights when Hield wasn’t as efficient with his shooting others stepped forward, such as Jordan Woodard in Thursday’s win over Texas A&M (his most recent act) and Isaiah Cousins on multiple occasions as well. That wasn’t the case Saturday as tose two combined to shoot just 7-for-20 from the field, scoring 24 points, but Cousins dished out a game-high seven assists and freshman guard Christian James chipped in with ten rebounds off the bench as well.

Five of James’ rebounds came on the offensive end, and those second-chance opportunities (OU finished with an offensive rebounding percentage of 43.8 percent) proved costly in the first half. Those contributions, along with the front court tandem of Ryan Spangler and Khadeem Lattin, are why Oklahoma can win two more games once in Houston.

That all being said, Saturday night was all about the latest virtuoso performance from a player whose hard work in Norman has paid off. As a freshman Hield was thought to be more valuable as a perimeter defender, as he averaged 7.8 points per game and shot just 38.8 percent from the field and 23.8 percent from three with a shooting stroke that needed a lot of work. Going from that to a junior season in which he won Big 12 Player of the Year for the first time, it made sense that Hield would entertain thoughts of turning pro.

But the combination of a second-round grade from NBA execs and the “unfinished business” of wanting to get to a Final Four led to Hield deciding to return from his senior season. Hield will step onto the Final Four stage next weekend, and he’ll be joined by a cast of teammates who themselves have shown the ability to step forward when needed.