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Oklahoma Basketball: Previewing The 2013-14 Sooners

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NORMAN, Oklahoma -

It's hard to know what to expect from the Oklahoma Sooners men's basketball team this season. The Sooners are coming off the program's first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2009, but also lost five key players from last year's team, four of those starters.

Youth is the theme with this year's team. There's a lot of talent, but the majority of the roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores and the two juniors who should see the court the most are in their first year of Division I basketball. Cameron Clark and Tyler Neal are the only two seniors.

"The jury is clearly out on this group regarding that since there are so many new guys and new bodies," said OU coach Lon Kruger, now in his third season in Norman. "This group will really play hard and push the ball and they'll do it together and unselfishly. From that standpoint, a coaching perspective, it's a great group to work with and a fun group to watch and cheer for.

"I'm excited about this group. Again, a lot of question marks, but their attitudes are great."

To say the Sooners have a lot to replace would be an understatement. Only 32 percent of the team's scoring from last year returns, as well as just 38 percent of the rebounding.

More importantly, the team lost its undisputed leader, Romero Osby. Osby led the Sooners in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage, but was the team leader on and off the court as well. Kruger said replacing his leadership and production will be key for the Sooners.

"When you consider what Ro did for us last year, it was really remarkable that he made as much progress as he did in the couple years that he played, especially in the leadership role," Kruger said. "His rebounding, his production, scoring was obvious, but the security that he gave the other players and the leadership he gave them was more important.

"It will be tough to replace both but this group is trying to develop a little maturity, develop a little leadership. That will be a work in progress I would imagine for a little while."

The remaining players are well aware of the void Osby left behind and what needs to be done to replace him. Instead of one player being the main leader, Kruger expects several players to step up and point the team in the right direction, starting with his two seniors.

"I think being a senior, it's not assumed, but you've been here three and a half years now," Neal said. "You want to use your experience to help them (younger players) and help them get the most out of everything. It's a fun role and it's crazy. Four years ago I remember being one of them."

Clark, who had his most effective season last year despite playing fewer minutes, said he and Osby had many conversations last season about being a leader and getting where each wanted to go in their careers.

"There were times when it was just me and Ro in the gym shooting, just talking about our future and how our hard work would pay off," Clark recalled. "I just learned from him to lead by example, be the first one in the gym and the last one to leave."

Clark and Neal aren't short on help. Osby's example has inspired those who remain, including Gonzaga transfer Ryan Spangler, who, after sitting out last season, will be counted on to help replace Osby's on-court production.

"I wouldn't say that I'm going to fill his role completely but I can (take on) some of his leadership, and some of his hard work that he did," Spangler said. "I don't think you can ever replace a man like him just after one year. I want to come in and work hard. He just brought it every day. "

Sophomore Buddy Hield is already known as a talker amongst his teammates and he's hoping to take what he learned from Osby last season and apply that as a leader this season.

"I just try to mimic what Ro did last year," Hield said. "Talking, leading, staying positive with my teammates—I'm still growing with that—just being the most consistent basketball player on the court and being the leader coach needs me to be.

"He was a hard worker," Hield continued. "He never took days off. He was always trying to lead better. That was always my drive from the Bahamas, to get better every day, but to see him work hard every day pushed me more."

The Sooners need people to step up as leaders this season. It could determine whether or not they'll be able to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.

Projected lineup:

G- Je'lon Hornbeak- 5.6 points/game, 2.7 rebounds/game, 33.3 3-point FG percentage

G- Buddy Hield- 7.8 points/game, 4.2 rebounds/game, 83.3 free throw percentage

F- Cameron Clark- 6.5 points/game, 3.2 rebounds/game, 51.3 FG percentage

F- Ryan Spangler- 2.5 points/game, 2.4 rebounds/game (2011-12 stats at Gonzaga)

F- D.J. Bennett- 7.2 points/game, 4.6 rebounds/game, 67.3 FG percentage (2011-12 stats at Indian Hills Community College)

Best player: Cameron Clark

Clark played the fewest minutes of his career last season, but it was far and away his most efficient season in Norman. Clark will be counted on to score a lot for the Sooners this year, and if his improvement last season is any indication, he should be ready to handle that task. Clark is the Sooners' most experienced player and he will have to play like it.

Breakout player: Jordan Woodard

The freshman is the only true point guard on the roster and will play a big part in the Sooners' rotation this year. Woodard has already been impressive this season—he averaged 9.4 points and led the team with 5.6 assists and 3.0 steals per game during the Sooners' August tour of Europe. Woodard averaged 15.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists in his senior year at Edmond Memorial High School last season. He can do it all and is a great addition to this OU team that sometimes lacked direction on the court last year.

Team strength: Backcourt depth

Je'lon Hornbeak, Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins all got thrown in the fire as freshmen a year ago and came out better for it. Shooting guard Frank Booker and point guard Woodard join the group and appear to be ready to contribute immediately. Hornbeak will be the primary point guard, but everyone except Booker has decent experience running the point guard position. It's a luxury to have so many that can handle the ball well.

Team weakness: Size

Besides the obvious youth and inexperience issues, the Sooners don't have a lot of size up front. JUCO transfer Keshaun Hamilton stands 6-foot-10 (but is considering transferring) and Spangler and D.J. Bennett are 6-foot-8. That's it. It lends itself well to a team that likes to run—which is what the Sooners want to do—but not as much for halfcourt sets. Luckily for the Sooners, the Big 12 doesn't possess a plethora of dominant big men, so it won't be as big (no pun intended) a problem as it could be.

Key games:

-Dec. 2 vs. Mercer- The Bears went 24-12 a year ago, falling in the Atlantic Sun tournament final to Florida-Gulf Coast. This will be a sneaky tough game against a tough mid-major for the Sooners, much like Stephen F. Austin and Ohio were last year.

-Bedlam, Jan. 27 in Norman, Feb. 15 in Stillwater- Last year, the Sooners and Cowboys were pretty much equals in talent, as evidenced by their two thrilling games a season ago. This year, the Cowboys have the clear upper hand in that department, but that shouldn't stop these games from being intense, emotional encounters.

-Jan. 14 at Kansas State- The Sooners and Wildcats are the leaders in the middle of the Big 12, so this game could be important for conference seeding. The Sooners lost a tight one in Manhattan last year.

-Feb. 8 vs. No. 25 Baylor- The Bears have talent, but no one is really sure what to expect of them this season after they won the NIT championship last year. February hasn't been the best for the Sooners the past few years and if they want to make another NCAA tournament, they'll need to get a couple wins against teams like Baylor.

-Bonus: No. 2 Michigan State in Coaches vs. Cancer Classic- It's not a guarantee this matchup will happen, as the Sooners have to beat Seton Hall and Michigan State has to beat Virginia Tech (Ok, that's pretty much guaranteed). The Spartans are ranked No. 2 to start the season, so it would be an extremely tall order for the Sooners. However, the Sooners' non-conference schedule lacks some punch, so this would help enhance that slate.

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