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How Good Can The Sooners Be This Year?

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NORMAN, Oklahoma -

Monday night changed things for the Oklahoma men's basketball team.

Heading into the Sooners' clash with No. 8 Oklahoma State, the narrative was still about how good the Sooners really were. Sure, OU had some good wins, but the jury was still out.

Now, thanks to OU's 88-76 win over the Cowboys Monday night, the narrative has changed from how good the Sooners are to how good they can be.

Oklahoma came into Monday night ranked No. 23 in the country, but that number is going to get smaller after an impressive win over OSU. The Sooners have a chance to make yet another statement on Saturday when they travel to Ames to take on No. 16 Iowa State. Win there, and we may have to open up the debate on which is the best team in the state.

For now, we'll stick to knowing the Sooners are a great team, a product of coach Lon Kruger's tremendous coaching job this season. Hardly anyone expected the Sooners to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament and some even doubted their ability to make the NIT. Now, it appears the Sooners are all but a lock for the NCAA tournament, and we're left to wonder how far they can go.

Monday night gave us some insight into what the Sooners have going for them and what they need to improve to make an NCAA tournament run, or even a run at the Big 12 title.

First, the fast-paced offense the Sooners have moved to this season is absolutely perfect for the personnel they have and it helps them get pretty much any shot they want. OSU came into the game tops in the Big 12 in field goal percentage defense at 38.4 percent, but the Sooners had no problems shooting 46.3 percent for the game. It could have been even higher if several shots hadn't rattled halfway down before popping out.

The Sooners still need to improve against zone defenses. The first half in the win against Baylor was fairly rough, but OU finally began hitting outside shots in the second half to get the big win. Monday night, OSU went to a zone late in the first half and the Sooners went over three minutes with just a single field goal.

The Sooners make a lot of 3-pointers, but can sometimes be a bit inconsistent. If OU wants to avoid being stymied by a solid zone, they'll have to make 3-pointers on a consistent basis to keep defenses honest.

Second, if the Sooners get contributions from everyone like they did Monday night, they're going to be a hard team to beat, no matter the opponent. Tyler Neal scored 15 points, Frank Booker had eight and even D.J. Bennett was a solid contributor with four points, four rebounds and several huge blocks off the bench.

Oklahoma has proven playmakers in Buddy Hield, Cameron Clark and Jordan Woodard and counts on big contributions from them each night to win games. The emergence of Ryan Spangler on offense has only increased the Sooners' potency on that end. Any significant contribution from the remaining players is icing on the cake, and makes the Sooners exceptionally dangerous.

OU won Monday despite subpar games from Clark (seven points) and Hield (11 points, 4-of-12 shooting). The contributions from Neal and Booker in particular offset those poor outings, but if those were in addition to normal scoring from Clark and Hield, OU would've scored well over 100.

The Sooners still have plenty of improvements to make, particularly on the defensive end. The intensity has increased dramatically since the beginning of the season, but there is still work to be done, especially when it comes to dribble-drive penetration. When OSU's Marcus Smart finally figured out it was a good idea to drive to the basket, the Sooners couldn't do much to stop him.

Thankfully for the Sooners, Smart elected to chuck up 11 3-pointers for the game rather than continue driving to the basket or pass to superior shooter Phil Forte, who finished the game 6-of-6 from deep.

Surprisingly, mental fortitude has become a big part of this OU team. When Le'Bryan Nash cut the OU lead to 76-70 with 3:43 to go, the Sooners didn't panic, but instead rolled off a 7-0 run over the next two minutes to all but put the game away. Two years ago, it's highly unlikely the Sooners would have held on to win in that situation.

So just how good can the Sooners be and how far can they go? A lot of that depends on defensive improvement and a bit of added consistency from the 3-point line. If the team continues to improve at the rate it has all season, there's no telling how far they could go.

A national championship and even the Big 12 championship may not be in the picture yet, but the fact we have to be realistic and say those aren't possibilities is a testament in and of itself to how far this OU team has come.

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