In the weeks and months leading up to the start of practices in October, we’ll take a look at some of the biggest teams, players and stories for the 2014-15 NCAA college basketball season. Each team has one burning question we’ll take a look at.
Some players like to wait until their respective conference’s media day to make claims of being future champions or All-Americans. Not Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield. He doesn’t have time to wait for that.
Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield: “We’re gonna win the Big 12. I’m saying it right now, we’re gonna win the Big 12.”
— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) July 11, 2014
To quote Pepper Brooks, “That’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for ‘em.”
Bold may be the most appropriate word for Hield’s comment, not because the Sooners don’t have the talent to pull it off, but because the history of the Big-12 has had the Kansas Jayhawks written all over it for the last decade. Ten straight regular season Big-12 Championships for the Jayhawks, one of the longest streaks in college basketball history. That’s what Hield and Oklahoma are up against this season.
Entering his junior season, Hield has a reason to feel confident, though. As the team’s leading scorer last season, the Sooners finished 12-6 in conference play last season, finishing just two games behind the vaunted Jayhawks in the Big-12, and a 23-10 overall record. However, that successful season didn’t materialize as the Sooner faithful had hoped. As a 5-seed in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, Oklahoma found itself pitted against the 12-seed North Dakota State Bison. NDSU was a darling pick for a first (second) round upset. Oklahoma was out to prove people wrong on those picks.
Unfortunately for the Sooners, NDSU was the top team in the country in terms of field goal percentage and finished their tournament game shooting just under 53 percent from the field. Oklahoma shot just 34 percent for the game. The Sooners had some hope, though, as NDSU’s top player, leading scorer and Summit League Player of the Year Taylor Braun was held to just 11 points. But that didn’t do them much good as Hield shot just 4-of-14 from the field and finished with nine points. Oklahoma lost in overtime 80-75, ending their tournament hopes.
Now, Oklahoma is trying to right the ship and have a redo from their disappointing tournament outing. Their biggest task heading into next season will be replacing the production of Cameron Clark, the team’s second leading scorer last season at 15.6 points per game. Together, Clark and Hield combined for over 30 of Oklahoma’s 82 points per game average, forming one of the nation’s most lethal duos.
Along with a returning Hield, Oklahoma also brings back Isaiah Cousins, who could help alleviate some of the production Clark leaves behind. Cousins shot 43 percent from three-point range last season and chipped in 11 points per game of his own. The Sooners also bring back Jordan Woodward and Ryan Spangler, who averaged about 20 points per game combined. The Sooners were seventh in the country in points per game last season.
Aside from their veteran returns, the Sooners’ recruiting class features two four-star recruits in forward Dante Buford and center Khadeem Lattin. Last year’s squad featured four guards and one forward in their starting five, leaving Spangler as the lone big in the lineup throughout most of the game.
This year could see a different look for Oklahoma if coach Lon Kruger decides to change things up a bit. He could either insert D.J. Bennett (played just nine minutes per game last year) into the starting five to replace Clark or he can bring in Buford or Lattin to fill that void. This would give the Sooners two bigs along with Spangler and focus more on their inside game, something they lacked last season.
Oklahoma has the talent to be a very solid team again and should be ranked in the top 25 when preseason rankings come out. However, the question isn’t about their talent, it’s whether or not Hield’s comments on being Big-12 Champions could come back to haunt them.
It’s an interesting case. Last year, the Big-12 was easily the deepest conference in the country, featuring seven teams selected for the NCAA Tournament field. Around the league, Oklahoma State could see a downfall after losing Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, Baylor loses most of their core in Brady Helsip, Isaiah Austin and Corey Jefferson, and Iowa State will be looking to replace DeAndre Kane, their do-it-all fifth-year point guard, and Melvin Ejim, last year’s Big-12 Player of the Year.
The biggest threats to Oklahoma, on paper, are Texas, Kansas State and Kansas. Texas returns everybody from a very solid campaign last season, one that saw the Longhorns put themselves back into the national spotlight. The Longhorns also bring in Myles Turner, one of the top recruits in the country, to bolster their already solid lineup. Texas pulled off a thrilling victory over Arizona State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament before losing a nail-biter against Michigan.
Kansas State loses about 20 points of last year’s offense to graduation but returns Marcus Foster, a freshman last season who led the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game. The Wildcats also return Thomas Gipson, their inside presence that complimented Foster’s attacking style of offense very well. Kansas State ran into the freight train that was the Kentucky Wildcats in their only NCAA tournament game last year.
Then there’s Kansas, the defending 10-time Big-12 Champions. Of course, the Jayhawks are looking to replace Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, who are now hot commodities in the NBA, as well as their point guard Naadir Tharpe, who left the program this summer for a number of reasons. However, as is the case with most high-profile college basketball programs, when one five-star recruits leaves for the NBA, another one is waiting in the wings to take their spot.
The Jayhawks have two five-star recruits coming in in 6’9″ power forward Cliff Alexander and 6’7″ small forward Kelly Obrue. Kansas also has a four-star recruit in point guard Devonte Graham, who is expected to be the team’s starter next year to replace Tharpe. Add those three players on top of the returning Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden, Kansas could see itself ranked as high as third in preseason rankings.
Right off the bat it seems like a four-team race for the Big-12 title, and that’s before mentioning that Iowa State is reloaded with transfers and brings back the versatile Georges Niang. So five solid teams, all expected to have top 25 rankings before the season. As a whole, the conference is just as strong as it was last year. However, this could be exactly what Oklahoma needs to make Hield’s prediction come true.
Parity in college basketball has never been more evident than it is now. With nobody being able to keep their top guys more than one year after the NBA shows interest in them, most of the top programs are ranked highly because of their freshmen, even if they are unproven. Oklahoma isn’t going to be relying on their freshman as much. The Sooners and Longhorns have the most veteran talent returning and have the luxury of throwing some freshmen into the fire without expecting them to lead the team. That veteran leadership could be the key in deciding the conference.
Buddy Hield may appear to be overly confident, but he may have a point. Oklahoma is sure to be a solid team and with uncertainty in freshmen at Kansas, this could be the year that a team like the Sooners swoops in and finally ends the Reign of the Jayhawks. Ten consecutive years as conference champions is long enough and teams are going to be gunning for Kansas like never before.
Why not the Sooners?