I'd like to think that this Texas basketball team is approaching tonight's game against OU as an opportunity to exact revenge.
Revenge for OU handing Texas a loss on the Longhorns' home floor in last year's Big 12 opener.
Revenge for TaShawn Thomas throwing the Horns down two years ago when his previous team, the Houston Cougars, knocked off UT 73-72 in some post-season tournament the name of which I've purposefully forgotten.
Revenge for the Sooners finishing No. 2 in the Big 12 last year, one game ahead of Texas.
Revenge for all the land that was illegally and unjustly stolen ahead of the designated times.
Oklahoma Sooners Roster
If you paid attention to Big 12 basketball last season, you'll find yourself familiar with most of this OU roster. Seniors Cam Clark and Tyler Neal have moved on, but the bulk of the team returned this season, including four starters.
The starting backcourt is unchanged, with preseason All-First Team Big 12 member Buddy Hield at shooting guard, junior Isaiah Cousins at the wing, and sophomore Jordan Woodard manning the point. I wrote in my Big 12 basketball preview about how the trio might help solve the Sooners' offensive struggles this season:
Where the Sooners may fall short is on offense, where they have four players averaging double digits in points, but get very little bench production and have a tendency to rely too much on one of their guards to make a play by himself. That's not always a bad thing when you're starting Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, and Jordan Woodard in your backcourt, but against teams with enough athleticism and a quality game plan, the Sooners have problems. Improvement will come if (1) Woodard can cut down his turnovers and (2) the Sooners can figure out how to shift more of the offensive load to Isaiah Cousins. Not only do I think Cousins is a more versatile scorer than Buddy Hield, but he his ability to break down a defense would only help open the floor a bit for Hield, who is the better perimeter shooter of the two.
OU apparently got half the memo, anyway, as the Sooners knocked off Baylor 73-63 on Saturday by more heavily involving Cousins on offense where he scored 19 points and was involved in the outcomes of 23% of OU possessions, all of which helped Hield have one of his best games of the season in a 20-point effort.
Jordan Woodard didn't quite do his part (just 6 points and 4 assists against 3 turnovers in 30 minutes), but the Sooners enjoyed a breakout performance from TaShawn Thomas, who exploded for 24 points on 11 of 17 shooting. The 6-8, 240-pound forward was granted a waiver from the one-year wait rule for transfers after UH head coach James Dickey (yes, that one) was let go, making Houston's best player from last season immediately available for Lon Kruger in 2014-15. Thomas had a terrific junior campaign last year, averaging more than 15 points, 8 rebounds, and nearly 3 blocks per game.
Add in the return of junior rebounding robot Ryan Spangler and OU is riding a crest in the talent cycle similar that's similar to Texas's. Like the Longhorns, we won't know until after the season whether this year or next will wind up representing the peak in the talent cycle (it'll depend on who returns), but either way the Sooners have a terrific starting five with a great blend of athleticism, skill, and experience.
I wrote in the Big 12 preview about OU's elite defense, and it was probably just a matter of time before the starters got things grooving a bit better on offense, but the one weakness that could potentially limit this squad over the long haul is its lack of depth. OU is getting very little from its bench right now -- both in terms of minutes (just 26% of available minutes are going to bench players -- compare with Texas, who allocates more than 37% of available minutes to reserves) and production (OU is getting just 23% of its points from off the bench). Head coach Lon Kruger rode his starting studs hard on Saturday against Baylor (38 minutes apiece for Cousins and Hield, and between 31-32 for the other three starters), and it paid off, but it could come back to haunt OU if it's best players are all worn out by February and March.
The Sooners wound up landing Khadeem Lattin, who I had nice things to say about last year during his recruitment, but while his long-term outlook remains bright, he is -- as are most freshman forward -- still pretty limited in terms of what he's able to contribute, and how consistently. Beyond the promising freshman, Lon Kruger's team looks a lot like some of Rick Barnes' groups in the mid- to late-2000's: a lot of quality among the top 5-6 in the rotation, but problematic depth and a roster that drops off steeply.
Keys to the Game & Prediction
So what's the game plan to beat these Land Thieves? Here's what I'll be watching for:
1. Don't let OU win with tempo. The Sooners do a terrific job of pushing the tempo in transition, which accounts for almost a third of their field goal attempts on the year. Jordan Woodard can get up the court in a hurry, and Buddy Hield might be the conference's best overall player in transition. He's lethal in transition and our guys need to show good awareness in terms of finding him and beating him down the court every time.
2. Take advantage of home court. The woes of road teams in the Big 12 owe in no small part to the ways officials' whistles tend to favor the home team. That's nothing new or revolutionary, but it's been particularly extreme in the Big 12, and while I'm all for striving to better the officials' performance, in the meantime we'd be wise to take our turn at the trough when it's time. A rocking Big Monday crowd ready to hate on OU should make for a great environment and, hopefully, a free throw advantage for the good guys. That requires us to do more than just show up, though: we have to give the officials a reason to blow the whistle, and when we play as the aggressors at home like we did last year against Kansas, good things happen. OU did a good job of that against Baylor on Saturday, and were awarded with 8 more free throws than the Bears. That's what we're looking for tonight.
3. Excel with our screens, cuts, spacing, and movement. Lon Kruger's squad is going to be playing that tenacious, ball-denying, in-your-jock defensive style that has given this Texas team fits over the past two years. The key to neutralizing it isn't to dribble, but to space the floor and have the four guys without the ball screening for each other and creating opportunities going towards the basket, behind the defense. If you see our guys moving towards halfcourt to catch the ball, rather than towards the rim, you're probably about to witness us struggle.
4. Capitalize on our depth advantage. We have more fresh bodies to contribute, more flexibility within our roster, and more fouls to give. I'll be pleased if our game plan seeks to take advantage of that. If Thomas and/or Spangler is on the bench with two, our advantage in the paint will balloon from modest to substantial. And if Hield and/or Cousins has to sit 10+ minutes with foul trouble, you can start rehearsing the Eyes of Texas.
Prediction: The Sooners legitimately make me nervous. It's going to be imperative that Demarcus Holland and Kendall Yancy have excellent defensive games chasing and staying in front of Cousins and Hield, and for all his flaws, one thing Jordan Woodard really excels at is drawing fouls, which could be devastating if he succeeds in sending Taylor to the bench for any meaningful amount of time. The Sooners are opportunistic, too -- the kind of team that invariably will be right there when a couple defensive rebounds that bounce off a Texas' players hands, flipping it into two points for the Sooners.
This is a game we can lose, even at home, but I like our chances. I think we'll be coming in with the right mindset to this one -- "We want this game, we're here to take it, and on our floor there's nothing you can do to stop us" -- and I think we can expect a strong game tonight from Taylor after having a game in Lubbock to get back in the swing of things. I think our depth can, should, and will be a beneficial factor -- particularly in the match up in Austin -- and so long as we're the team shooting more free throws tonight, I expect that we'll have our revenge indeed. Texas holds serve at home, 74-69.