Coming off of a trip to the 2016 Final Four, there is plenty of excitement surrounding Oklahoma men’s basketball. So much so, the season ticket allotment for OU students sold out in less than 24 hours earlier this week.
Over the last four seasons, head coach Lon Kruger has led Oklahoma to a 96-41 (.701) record and advanced to the NCAA Tournament each season. After the graduation of star seniors Isaiah Cousins, Buddy Hield and Ryan Spangler, the Sooners will look to its young roster and key returners to continue the sustainable success set in place by Kruger.
Oklahoma returns two starters from the Final Four squad in junior Khadeem Lattin and senior Jordan Woodard. Younger players, such as sophomores Dante Buford, Christian James and Rashard Odomes, will have more opportunities to contribute and improve in the upcoming season. OU also boasts a freshmen class that features Kristian Doolittle and Kameron McGusty, both ranked in the top 70 of the 2016 ESPN 100.
As the Sooners prepare for preseason practice to tip off next week, Sooner Sports TV’s Jessica Coody sat down with Kruger to review OU’s summer workouts and gauge his outlook heading into the preseason.
Your team saw a very talented class graduate last season. How will the returners fill those roles in this upcoming season?
“The returners know that their role will be different. When you lose such a good class and such a productive class in terms of minutes, points and rebounds, there’s opportunity for guys to assume a lot bigger roles and challenging roles. But they want that. Sometimes it’s ‘careful what you wish for’ but this group’s worked hard, they’ve put in time in the offseason. They’ve spent time individually like last year’s group did, for sure. This group has followed that lead and I’m excited to see them grow, develop and hopefully mature very quickly.”
This is the most new faces that Sooner fans have seen in a while with the freshmen and other guys coming in, and there are also guys who haven’t played as much who now will get an opportunity. How did you feel those guys have done in learning the system and stepping into the collegiate role?
“They've done a great job, they've done a really good job. A guy that comes to mind is Christian James, who played a pretty significant role last year and a good number of minutes. Rashard Odomes didn't as much in conference play but handled it great. He continued to work and now he’s put himself in position as a sophomore to play a lot bigger, major role and he’s done a good job with that. Other guys as well, Khadeem (Lattin), of course a returning starter, and Jordan Woodard, returning starter, they know what is expected of them and it’s a big role. Jamuni McNeace, along with Christian, played quite a bit as a freshman and now he’ll be expected to step up as well, as well as several of the incoming freshman.”
How much have you seen Khadeem Lattin grow this summer? Last year we saw him in that more defensive, ‘junkyard dog’ down in the paint. Now he’s going to be looked at to score a little bit more. How have you seen his game develop over the offseason?
“He’s developed very well. He’ll probably be the surprise for the fans because he can really score, and he wasn't asked to do that last year, didn't get as many opportunities to do that. But we’ll be expecting him to do that because he’ll have one of the biggest changes in role. He’s going to continue to crowd the lane and contest shots and block shots but on the offensive end we’ll expect him to do a lot more of what he can do. He just hasn't been in position to do that as much to this point.”
Jordan Woodard – a senior, a guy who has been around. He moved to the two-guard last year and this summer we’ve seen him move back to the point a little bit. What do you see him doing more of this season?
“A major role, for sure. Much more of a role as a point guard. He may slide over occasionally depending on who else we may have on the floor but the majority of his minutes will be at the point. Jordan had a great junior year. Now trying to prepare him to understand that now he’s the priority target for the opposition’s scouting report so he has to be in even better condition. He has to work harder to get as close to the looks he did last year. He got a lot of those looks because of Isaiah, Ryan and Buddy around him. We want him to have the same qualities looks this year but he is going to have to work even harder to get that.”
As preseason starts, what do you need to see from him on the leadership front?
“He’s got to step up. Along with C.J. Cole, they’re our two seniors and Khadeem and Darion Strong are our two juniors. Everyone else is freshmen or sophomores. He’s got to step up and be more vocal and be more aggressive. He’s done a good job of that to this point.”
What are some of the challenges going to be in having such a young team going into the preseason? How do you approach that as opposed to last year when you had such a veteran team?
“We’ve got to find that fine line where we’re expecting a lot yet promoting confidence. We don't want to expect so much that they are just invited to fail, and yet we want to expect a fair amount where we are still challenging them to mature as quickly as possible. Our staff will talk about that a lot and talk about that a lot individually with the players and keep their confidence level high and yet keep pushing them to take that next step”
Speaking of your staff, how has that transition been?
“It’s gone very well. Our staff had been together a long time prior to Steve Henson and Lew Hill getting head jobs, which is fantastic. That’s what you want for all of your staff. Now with Kevin (Kruger) and Carlin (Hartman) coming in, Crutch (Chris Crutchfield) has given them great leadership. Mike Shepherd, of course, has been around a long time. We’ve got Will Saxon as a video guy now. A lot of new guys in different roles on our staff as well but they’ll make the adjustment quickly.”
You have a very challenging non-conference schedule for your young guys. How do you prepare them for that in just a short month of preparation when you have to hit the ground running with such tough competition?
“The guys are aware of how tough it is, so we don't have to sell that very hard. What we have to do, as we do every year, is just get better each day and go and have our best practice we possibly can each day. Make as much progress as we can each day and each week so come that opening day we are as far along as we can be. Of course, opening day of conference play we kind of use that same theory during non-conference - get better, improve, have fun competing, have fun working at being great. This group will have a good attitude about that.”
With the conference schedule recently coming out, there’s been a lot of excitement. The Big 12 is always challenging. What are your expectations for this fanbase, being that they were so supportive a year ago. Now they’ll have a little different team than what they’ve seen around – what do you expect from them?
“The crowds have been great. They’ve grown every year and last year they were clearly as good as they’ve been. We need take the end of last year and use it as a starting point going forward because this will be a different team. It will be an equally enjoyable team to watch in terms of their effort is going to be good, they’re going to play with enthusiasm, they're going to have fun playing. To see how quick they mature and develop and become a team that can compete at a high level in the Big 12 Conference will be exciting to watch.”
What’s your excitement level at knowing that it’s right around the corner, that you’ll get to hit the floor again?
“Every year is different because every team is a little bit unique. Even the last couple years, even with mostly the same players, their level of expectation was different going into the last couple years and going into last year for sure. This group will have a different level of expectations, a different starting point. But it will be fun to watch them with their eagerness and enthusiasm and energy to try to get to that point where the team last year was.”