Take 3: OU's late-game struggles

Sooners problems are mental, physical and tactical

In three of Oklahoma’s last four losses, the Sooners held a solid lead in the final minutes of the game – only to watch it wither away.

It’s an issue, and clearly a big one, considering the depth of the Big 12 Conference and the likelihood that each and every game could come down to the final minutes.

Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said that fatigue has become a bit of an issue with the Sooners playing only four off the bench – and usually in light minutes.

“Fatigue is a part of that,” Kruger said. “You have to fight that off, especially late-game situations.”

But there are far more basic issues. Some are mental. Some are physical. Some are strategic. They are all keeping Oklahoma from succeeding late in games. Here are just three:

1. Oklahoma lacks a player who can create a shot for everybody one the team.

Point guard Jordan Woodard is doing a better job of finding cracks in the defense and usually knows where to go to draw extra defenders, but the Sooners still lack that one ball handler who can break down his man and force help - a go-to guy in the clutch.

Buddy Hield can shoot lights out, but he doesn’t have spectacular on-the-ball moves need to evade the best defender on the other team. Isaiah Cousins is the same way. He’s probably the closest to becoming that late-game killer for Oklahoma, though.

Woodard, who has been more aggressive lately and is shooting the ball better, still doesn’t have that last burst to separate himself from defenders.

As a result, Oklahoma’s late-game offense looks more like a youth AAU team passing around the perimeter late in games – especially against a zone. To win in close games, Oklahoma has to find that one guy who can make a play, and it doesn’t always have to be the same guy.

Kansas State had Marcus Foster. KansasFrank Mason played a role in every basket that the Jayhawks’ scored in the final minutes to take the lead. Kenny Chery and Lester Medford gave the Sooners fits as Baylor ran away late.

Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger has liked the offense – for the most part – late in games. He wants better defense. It can’t go without stating though that the Sooners shot 5-for-16 – 31.25 percent – in the final five minutes of their losses to Kansas and Baylor.

2. The Sooners don’t trust TaShawn Thomas.

Or maybe TaShawn Thomas doesn’t trust TaShawn Thomas.

At one point during the Sooners latest loss, Thomas was face up in the high post against Baylor point guard Kenny Chery late in the second half. Huge size mismatch there. He didn’t even look to the rim.

Thomas, who has just 30 points and 16 rebounds in the past four games combined, said recently that the change to the Big 12 has been a difficult one.

“I’ve had to mature a little bit more,” Thomas said. I’ve had to take basketball a lot more serious in this conference. I can’t take any days off. When I do, it shows up. I just have to be in the gym more, like I said, and make sure I stay on top of everything.”

That was before Oklahoma’s loss to Baylor but after Thomas started conference play with three straight double-digit scoring games, including a 24-point performance against Baylor, and back-to-back double-doubles. He was averaging 16-and-10.

Thomas has to find that initial confidence he had in himself, and let Oklahoma know that it can depend on him to get a bucket late in the game.

“It’s me just not preparing the right way,” Thomas said. “I wasn’t really in tune to the team. I was just trying to stick it to myself. I wasn’t being encouraging to everybody. I feel like I was kind to sticking and staying away from everybody.”

3. There’s a major toughness issue.

Woodard might have just hinted at it after the Sooners’ loss to Baylor, saying that Oklahoma had to “execute and be tough” late in games. Executing is one thing, but Oklahoma shouldn’t have a problem with toughness at this point.

The Sooners brought back four of their own starters and brought in Thomas, who transferred from Houston after starting for three seasons. Toughness – mental or physical – shouldn’t be a problem for this team that’s loaded with major conference experience.

“It’s a case where we just need to get good results,” Kruger said. “You need to feel good about what you’re doing at that moment. Guys have been in those situations before and done fine. This year, we still need to gain some confidence that those moments. There’s nothing you can really do to simulate that in practice.”

Oklahoma (12-7, 3-4 Big 12) hasn’t stopped people late in games and just feeling better about itself won’t help either.

Kansas State scored on seven of its final nine possessions at the end of regulation and overtime. The Jayhawks scored on 13 of their final 15 possessions.

Baylor, which scored 20 points in just more than five minutes to end the game, dunked the ball three times in the final 90 seconds.

It has become just too easy for Oklahoma’s opponents. There’s not much toughness on the defensive end.

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