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Big 12 Basketball: Oklahoma Looks to Build on a Successful Season

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Our series continues with a look at Lon Kruger's Sooners.

Buddy Hield is among the best players in the Big 12.
Buddy Hield is among the best players in the Big 12.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Reviewing the 2013-2014 Oklahoma basketball season raises a fairly interesting point about what makes a basketball team successful. It often turns out that good teams -- and the Sooners were at least that, going 23-10 and finishing second in the Big 12 -- often are good by not being bad at anything, and excelling in one or two areas.

Last season, the OU defense was about average. The Sooners finished fifth in the Big 12, allowing 1.05 points per possession in conference play. The OU offense was significantly better than average, finishing second in the league while scoring a robust 1.12 points per trip.

But even the outstanding Sooner offense, which according to kenpom.com was one of the 20 best in the nation, only excelled in a few of statistical categories. This is illustrated in the waterfall chart below, which shows how various statistical categories combine to make OU's offense better than average. Lon Kruger's squad was really only strong in a few areas. OU shot extremely well, both from three point range as well as the free throw line, and didn't turn the ball over very much.

(Waterfall charts taken from hooplens.com.)

It is kind of amazing when you think about it. A team can come in second in a power conference while being good at two things (in this case shooting and avoiding turnovers) while being average at everything else. More than anything, this shows the power of being average.

Here is the waterfall chart for the Oklahoma defense, which shows you just what average looks like.

Just being average at something tends to go unnoticed. When a team is good at something, or bad at something, it sticks out. Average seems kind of boring. But think about it; if a team is average at almost everything, and better than average in one or two key ways, than that team will necessarily be above average.

From time to time, college coaches will contact me with questions about basketball statistics. I have been asked a variety of things, but the one question that is on every coach's mind, even if they don't ask me about it, is "how do I make my team better?"

There are a lot of potential answers here, but at least one answer to this question is this: find a couple of impactful things that you can really be good at, focus on those things, and then figure out how to be average at everything else.

Shooting the Ball

When it comes to basketball, two things are more important than anything else. These things are:

  • Being tall.
  • Shooting well.

It's a really simple game.

Almost every successful basketball player has at least one of these two things going for him. As mentioned in the previous section, good shooting was at the heart of what made OU successful last year. And Oklahoma returns four players who all shot the ball well from the perimeter last season.

The most important of these players is junior guard Buddy Hield. Last season Hield connected on 39 percent of his threes, 51 percent of his twos, 75 percent of his free throws, and rarely turned the ball over while averaging 16.5 PPG. Hield scores from all over the floor, which makes him exceptionally hard to contend with, but he was at his best last season when spotting up from three or scoring in transition. The only other thing I can say about Hield is he is probably one of the best three or four players in the conference.

Joining Hield in the backcourt is sophomore point guard Jordan Woodard, who had an underrated freshman year. With so many other good point guards in the league, including fellow sophomores Marcus Foster and Isaiah Taylor, it is easy to see how a player as good as Woodard could go unnoticed. But let's do a little comparison, just to put Woodard's freshman year in context. Can you guess which stat line below belongs to Jordan Woodard?

Player A: 10.3 PPG, 4.6 APG, 2.2:1 Assist to Turnover Ratio, 108 Offensive Rating

Player B: 12.7 PPG, 4.0 APG, 1.7:1 Assist to Turnover Ratio, 101 Offensive Rating

If you guessed Player A, you are correct. (Player B is Isaiah Taylor.)

If you didn't notice Jordan Woodard last year, you missed out on a pretty good player.  Woodard's strengths include playmaking, protecting the ball, drawing and making free throws (he attempted 8 free throws for every 10 shots from the floor, which is an outstanding rate), and shooting (he was a 37 percent three point shooter and hit 77 percent from the free throw line). His biggest weakness is a problem shared by many smaller guards; he has a hard time finishing near the rim. Last season, the Sooner point guard converted on only 40 percent of his layups.

The third dangerous shooter for the Sooners is junior Isaiah Cousins, who hit 40 percent of his threes last season, and sank 80 percent of his shots from the free throw line.

And finally there is sophomore Frank Booker, who as a freshman got up 114 threes in only 451 minutes on the floor. That amounts to one three point attempt for every 3.1 minutes, which is a higher rate than even that of Buddy Hield, who only could get up one three every 4.5 minutes. Booker was solid from distance, connecting on 37 percent.

Big Changes for the Sooner Front Line

Last season, the Sooners' lack of height inside cost them in the NCAA tournament when they matched up against a physical North Dakota State team in the round of 64. Despite the fact that Summit League player of the year Taylor Braun had a lousy game, OU still lost in overtime. The Sooner offense was fine, if unexceptional -- OU was helped by going 12-30 from three point range -- but Kruger's men had no answer for the Bison around the rim. 30 of 51 North Dakota State shot attempts were either layups or dunks; the Sooners were destroyed inside by a giant upper-midwest farm kid with a Scandinavian name.

Minutes along the front line last season primarily went to the now departed Cameron Clark and junior Ryan Spangler. This season the front court is likely to look very different for the Sooners, as Kruger has brought in several promising recruits to play inside, as well as a high impact transfer who may be able to play this season.

The biggest new name in the OU lineup this year will be 6-8 Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas -- if he is granted a waiver by the NCAA, and not required to sit out for a season. Thomas is an solid big man who impacts the game at both ends of the floor, scoring, rebounding, and patrolling the paint on D. If Thomas is able to play this season, it will significantly improve the expectations for a team that should already have high expectations.

Thomas will also likely alter the way that OU plays. Last year OU played four perimeter players together, setting up the offense with the 6-7 Cameron Clark outside of the three point line, where Clark buried 44 percent of his threes. Clark's backup, the now departed Tyler Neal, played a similar role.

If Thomas is eligible, Kruger will likely want to maximize minutes for both Thomas and Spangler, meaning that Oklahoma will shift to an offensive approach designed to use two more traditional big men. Big men with strong perimeter games like Clark and Romero Osby have allowed Kruger the option of spreading the floor in recent years, but that just isn't who Thomas and Spangler are.

If Thomas is not eligible, the way OU plays will be based on how minutes on the front court shake out.

Players that won't likely play away from the basket who will be competing for minutes inside next to Spangler include a senior, two freshman, and a returning sophomore.

Senior big man D.J. Bennett is a rim protector, but he was unable to steal many minutes inside last season. Bennett's presence on the floor last season did coincide with a drop in opponent two point field goal percentage; for the 519 defensive possessions where he was on the floor, opponents converted 47 percent of their twos, compared with 49 percent when he sat. However, when Bennett played, he was almost always in for Spangler (the two players only logged 10 possessions together all last season), which led to a drop off in rebounding. This reduction in defensive rebounding erased the gains from better rim protection, which left the OU interior defense more or less the same.

6-7 freshman Khadeem Lattin right now appears to be fairly raw on offense, and will likely impact the game more on defense and on the glass. The same can be said of 6-10 freshman Jamuni McNeace, who is very new to basketball, having grown from 5-10 as a high school freshman to 6-10 now. 6-7 sophomore C.J. Cole is also more of a traditional inside player.

If Kruger does want to throw a stretch-four out on the floor again this season, he will have a couple of options. One is 6-7 freshman Dante Buford, who connected on 41 percent of his threes as a high school senior, and who's high school highlight videos show a mix of offensive skills. I will note here that Buford's eligibility for the season is not guaranteed due to concerns with the accreditation of some high school classes. A second option will be to play 6-7 sophomore Austin Mankin. Mankin hardly played as a freshman, but during his high school career showed the ability to stroke the ball from long range.

If Thomas is eligible, we will possibly see two or three redshirts in the Oklahoma front court. Even if Thomas has to sit out this year redshirting will still be likely. This is because with Spangler well-established in the front court, six guys will be chasing after the same 50-60 minutes per game, minutes that can easily be handled by three or four players.

Outlook

Oklahoma is fully capable of competing with anyone in a highly competitive top half of the Big 12. Kruger is returning nearly everyone from a young team that finished second in the Big 12 last season, including one of the league's best players in Buddy Hield, as well as introducing another solid recruiting class.

How the NCAA rules on Thomas' waiver request will have a big impact on the OU squad. Thomas immediately corrects most of the weaknesses for this team, bringing inside scoring and a shot blocking presence. OU is a Big 12 championship contender anyway -- each of the five best teams in the Big 12 are -- but if Thomas can play the Sooners can get a lot better.