A college basketball season like never before.
As the world continues to battle the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Sooners return to play ready to fight on the hardwood while following the protocols and adjustments of the unique season ahead.
For Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger – entering his 10th season in Norman – he and his team are grateful for the chance to compete and return to the game they love.
“We have the opportunity to get back to what (our players) enjoy doing the most,” said Kruger. “These guys are getting back on the basketball court, their safe place. The security they get from playing basketball and being with each other – all those things are critical. They’re handling it well. They’ve practiced, they’ve challenged themselves and they’ve enjoyed that part of it very sincerely. Making progress is the result. Getting back on the court helps everyone that loves the game and loves competing.”
Similar to most of the sporting world, the Sooners’ 2019-20 season came to an abrupt halt as the safety concerns of the spreading virus canceled postseason play hours before OU’s postseason opener at the Big 12 Championship in Kansas City.
Oklahoma was in solid position to reach its seventh NCAA Tournament in eight years, claiming third place in the Big 12 after a strong finish down the conference stretch.
“You just keep building. You never get satisfied, never get complacent. You just keep pushing forward.”
– Austin Reaves
Coming off a three-game losing streak and finding themselves on the March Madness bubble, Oklahoma played some of its best ball in the final two weeks of the season to head into the postseason confident about receiving an at-large bid. Oklahoma won three of its last four games, with the only loss being a one-point defeat at the buzzer. In that stretch, the Sooners won two games against ranked opponents and three games away from Lloyd Noble Center.
The Sooners were playing their best ball and didn’t have a chance to show their worth in the postseason. Now, a senior-heavy team that returns 70% of its scoring is ready to finish what it started last spring.
“With the way the season ended, some would say it ended on a good note,” said senior guard Austin Reaves. “We were frustrated we couldn’t keep playing…You just keep building. You never get satisfied, never get complacent. You just keep pushing forward.”
Oklahoma boasted the top scoring trio in the Big 12 last season in forward Kristian Doolittle (15.8 points per game), Reaves (14.7) and forward Brady Manek (14.4). While Doolittle, a 2020 First Team All-Big 12 selection, has graduated, the Sooners expect big things from seniors Reaves and Manek.
Reaves finished sixth in the Big 12 in scoring last season and was named both an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention selection and member of the Big 12 All-Newcomer Team. The league’s coaches voted him onto the Preseason All-Big 12 Team for 2020-21 and he boasts the second-highest scoring average among returning Big 12 players.
A Preseason All-Big 12 Team selection, Austin Reaves boasts he second-highest 2019-20 scoring average among returning Big 12 players.
Still, Reaves and Kruger believe there is more he can add to his game. When Reaves was playing his first two collegiate seasons at Wichita State he shot a combined 82-of-182 (45.1%) from 3-point range and led the American Athletic Conference in 3-point percentage during conference play in 2017-18 (41.5%). Despite his high-volume scoring at Oklahoma, Reaves averaged only 25.9% from behind the arc as a junior.
“He had a really good year without shooting the ball like he’s capable of,” said Kruger. “He’s the first one to recognize and admit that and I think he’s spent time in the offseason taking that to heart and taking the time to get that consistency back.”
Manek has been a staple of Kruger’s squad the last three seasons. He has started in 91 of OU’s last 97 games and boasts career averages of 12.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.9 3-point field goals. Now a senior, he enters his final year with 1,188 career points (31st in OU history) and 187 3-pointers (seventh in OU history). He is the only player in program history to accumulate at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 150 3-pointers and 75 blocks.
Last season, Manek averaged 14.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while sinking 71 3-pointers at a 38% clip. He was an All-Big 12 Third selection and ranked third in the Big 12 in field goal percentage, eighth in scoring, ninth in blocks and 12th in rebounding.
With even more strength and experience heading into 2020-21, Manek was named to the preseason watch list for the Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award.
“I think every year I’ve been here I’ve improved on something just a little bit more,” said Manek. “That’s the goal for me this year. Whether it’s percentages, making shots, making plays, rebounds, not turning the ball over as much. I think I need to improve on every aspect of my game and it will all help the team in the end. The better I can do…is what’s going to help the team. My role will just be another step like it has been the last two or three years.”
Despite returning so much, the Sooners will obviously need to fill the void left by Doolittle’s graduation. While it may not be one player who fills in that slot, Kruger likes the depth he has down low.
“Kur Kuath has made a lot of progress and I think this year will be another year he takes a big step – a little more scoring,” said Kruger. “He’s always protected the rim. He’s very, very good defensively covering ball screens and communicating as the back line of support…We’ve got Rick Issanza, a redshirt freshman who was here last year. He’s made tons of progress. He’s big, he’s strong, a rim protector, really good mobility. Brady (Manek) of course can play the five spot, as he did for several minutes last year. Those three guys will probably share the five spot. Victor Iwuakor could probably move over there if we wanted to go really small. He’s very athletic…We have good depth there, and the same thing at the 4 spot with the versatility there with Brady, Victor, Jalen Hill and Anyang Garang. We have pretty good depth at those spots.”
Kruger also likes the depth he has in the backcourt. In addition to Reaves, the Sooners also return sophomore De’Vion Harmon and senior Alondes Williams, who combined to start on 32 occasions last season.
Harmon averaged 7.4 points, 2.0 assists, 1.8 rebounds and 1.1 steals as a freshman. Despite the solid rookie stat line, Kruger believes he still has a ways to go in his development and could be a strong asset for the Sooners this season.
Brady Manek was recently named to the preseason watch list for the Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award.
“I thought De’Vion did a good job adjusting last year as the season went along,” said Kruger. “He figured out what he needed to do to be effective in Big 12 play. He’s had a terrific offseason working hard to become bigger and stronger and is spending a ton of extra time in the gym as far as making shots. We expect him to continue to make progress and have a great year.”
A senior and former junior college national champion, Williams assembled averages of 6.0 points and 1.9 rebounds during his first year in Norman. As one of the most athletic players on the OU roster, he also provided some of the best dunks and highlights of the season. With his first year of Division I ball under his belt, Kruger thinks Williams can contribute more this year.
“Alondes had those moments of what we’re looking for,” said Kruger. “He’s got that ability, just needs to do it more consistently. He knows that and that’s his challenge and he’s working at it.”
The Sooners added four guards over the offseason as well, bringing in freshmen Josh O’Garro and Trey Phipps along with transfers Umoja Gibson and Elijah Harkless. O’Garro reclassified from the class of 2021 to the class of 2020 and is expected by Kruger to redshirt this season. Phipps was one of the top high school players in Oklahoma at Booker T Washington in Tulsa and was the MVP of the 2019 OSSAA State Tournament, scoring 42 points with eight 3-pointers in the Oklahoma 6A State Championship.
Both Gibson and Harkless have two years of eligibility remaining. Gibson came to Norman from North Texas where he was the second-leading scorer for a Mean Green squad which claimed the Conference USA regular season title. He boasted sophomore averages of 14.5 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.4 steals in 30.4 minutes while connecting on 86 3-pointers.
Harkless joins the Sooners after two seasons at Cal State Northridge. The guard averaged 10.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists and a Big West-leading 1.7 steals in 29.5 minutes during the 2019-20 season. His 5.8 boards per game led all Big West guards.
“Both Mo and Elijah are outstanding young men,” said Kruger. “The coaches at their former programs really enjoyed coaching them. They both possess a strong desire to be good teammates, are self-motivated and want to work hard every day to make as much progress as possible. We’re excited to have them join the Sooner family.”
Many unknowns remain regarding the upcoming season, but the Sooners enter the unique year with a load of experience and momentum coming off of last season. Kruger has guided his teams to six of the last seven NCAA Tournaments and will be making yet another run at the postseason with his senior-heavy team.