Take 3: Battle 4 Atlantis

Sooners take pride on defensive end, find a big man who can score inside

The Oklahoma men’s basketball team made a Thanksgiving trip to the Bahamas, and by anyone’s account, the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament was a masterful success.

The Sooners finished the tournament 2-1, reaching the championship game and playing No. 2 Wisconsin tight for a half before falling to the champions and frustratingly claiming second place.

After knocking off No. 20 UCLA in the first round, Oklahoma defeated Butler, which had bested No. 5 North Carolina the day before, to reach the championship game.

Here are three things that can be taken away from the week:

TaShawn Thomas needs to become a fixture of the offense.

The Sooners’ offense is far more diverse than any would have expected – especially before the season when Thomas wasn’t eligible. On multiple occasions, the Sooners just gave Thomas the ball, even two or three steps off the block, and the athletic big man went and got a bucket.

“We’ve got to determine what it is that we want to execute in terms of getting the ball in the hands of the right people, getting the ball down inside a little more,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said after the team’s loss to Wisconsin.

That’s something Oklahoma will need in Big 12 play against Kansas, Iowa State and Texas. Thomas can provide that and might be the first player to do that on a consistent basis since Blake Griffin.

Except that Griffin did it with athleticism. Thomas, who finished the tournament 8-for-14 with 24 points, has all-around game.

Thomas’ play showed a lot, but nothing speaks louder than Kruger’s assessment of his own team.

“We’ve got to re-evaluate things offensively, primarily,” Kruger said. “. . . Offensively, we’ve just got to execute things better.”

Oklahoma can play with the best teams in the country.

Even though No. 2 Wisconsin was playing without its best player for almost the entire first half, it can’t be ignored that the Sooners were losing by just one point – despite turning the ball over at an alarming rate.

Oklahoma was almost there in the championship, they beat a UCLA team that was unbeaten and was far more athletic than they were. Then, they beat Butler, which is definitely a NCAA Tournament team and might be ranked in the Top 25 on Monday.

“We know so much more about our club right now than we did three days ago – the good, bad and everything in between – and that’s the value of playing in this quality of tournament,” Kruger said. “ . . . We will take a lot from this, get back to work. The value of the opportunity to play in events like this is hard to measure at this point, but I like our group and like the fact that they will get back to work and am looking forward to getting better.”

The Sooners (4-2), who are sure to be back in the Top 25 on Monday, aren’t without their faults, like any team.

Oklahoma still is too reliant on the 3-pointer in the half-court but showed depth defensively and offensively. Freshman forward Khadeem Lattin didn’t play against Wisconsin, although walk-on Austin Mankin did. The Sooners still go nine deep – 10 if Mankin plays a big role.

Defense has definitely become a priority

Oklahoma allowed an average of 76 points per game last year, and that includes some of the best defensive performances against lower-tier non-conference opponents.

That average also includes giving up more than 100 points to Louisiana Tech and six 80-point games in seven contests. All of that came against some of the worst teams on the Sooners’ schedule last year.

Oklahoma won’t play a team as strong as Wisconsin before the NCAA Tournament and might not play three straight NCAA-Tournament quality teams the rest of the year, either. They definitely won’t play three teams who should earn top-eight seeds.

But against its best three non-conference opponents, Oklahoma allowed just 60 points per game.

“We took some really good steps defensively,” Kruger said. “We like where we are headed (defensively), and we will continue improving on that end of the floor.”

Oklahoma allowed a higher average against its first three non-conference opponents (Southeastern Louisiana, Creighton, Northwestern State).

The week went better than Oklahoma could have expected.

“If you would have said Monday night that we were sitting here having learned all that we did and having experienced all that we did, we would be thrilled, absolutely,” Kruger said when asked if he was pleased with his team this week. “We know that we did a lot of good things in the tournament. I thought that we really progressed defensively. I thought we did some good things on the boards. We still have a lot of work to do offensively in finding a rhythm.

We are exactly where we could have wanted (except for coming up) short just a few points there at the end.”

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