Full-Court Press: Albany

Sooners built for tournament success despite watching Big 12 foes fall early

Sooners Illustrated will present three things to watch before every men’s basketball game during the 2014-15 season.

No. 14 Albany (24-8) vs. No. 3 Oklahoma (22-10)

When: 6:27 p.m. CST

TV/Radio: truTV/107.7 FM(OKC); 1430 AM (Tulsa)

Series: First meeting

Sooners built for now From the first day of workouts, Oklahoma insisted that the most important part of playing defense is communication.

The message was simple: To be better prepared to win in the Big 12 and beyond, the Sooners had to play better than they did last year on the defensive end.

Oklahoma ranked in the bottom of the nation last season in points allowed – giving up more than 75 points per game. This season, that number has plummeted. The Sooners, who are giving up 62.4 points per game, have only allowed 70 or more points five times this season.

“Most teams that make it pretty far play defense,” Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler said. “Our goal is to make it as far as possible. The only way to do that is to play defense. We can’t rely on our offense anymore.”

Instead, Oklahoma has relied on a heavy-switching defense. Everything on the perimeter, Oklahoma swaps on screens. TaShawn Thomas and Spangler are almost interchangeable in the post.

It has left Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger unconcerned about any one player on Albany’s rosters. He said that he was much more concerned about 5-on-5 play.

His team is far less worried as well, relying on an old cliché as a form of comfort.

“That’s the only way you can win these types of games, with defense,” point guard Jordan Woodard said. “Offense can only take you so far. It might be cliché, but it’s real. You have to get stops late games. I feel like that’s one of the reasons we’ve been closing out these games and beating teams.”

On the verge of history

Even if Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger doesn’t want to talk about it – or even think about it – that doesn’t mean that he isn’t one win away from making NCAA history.

Kruger will become the first coach in NCAA Tournament history to lead five different teams to at least one victory. Two wins and Kruger becomes the first coach to reach the Sweet 16 with five different teams.

“Just concerned more abut winning the game for the guys that are in the program and for the program,” Kruger said. “But we’ve been at good places. We’ve been with good players. They’ve had a lot of good times. So, it doesn’t mean too much more than that.”

It would mean something for the Sooners to get Kruger the win, aside from breaking his winless streak during the past two trips to the tournament.

“He made all us players better,” Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield said. “He made us believe in what he’s doing, and you see why he’s done so much around the league.. . . He’s bringing teams that people didn’t pick to make it far and just getting the best out of his players. I really respect him for that.”

One last wake-up call

If Oklahoma wasn’t focused enough after being upset in the first round last year and losing the year before, then sitting in their hotel rooms and then in the locker room and watching the Big 12 go down had to be a shock.

Baylor lost to Georgia State, and Iowa State fell to UAB. Both were No. 3 seeds but lost by one point.

The fourth No. 3 seed, Notre Dame, was almost upset but pulled off a one-point victory.

“I hope they already knew nothing was going to be easy,” Kruger said. “If they didn’t, I guess this would reinforce that they’ve got to be ready and battling every possession and respect the opponents.”

Now, Oklahoma is not only playing for its first NCAA Tournament win since 2009 but also the pride of the Big 12.

Texas also lost in the first round Thursday, leaving West Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will play Friday to try and win for the Big 12, which won just six tournament games last year despite having seven teams make the NCAA Tournament.

“It helps us,” Spangler said of the early upsets. “It shows us that anybody can beat anybody when it comes to March. We’ll be thinking about those two losses (Thursday night) and see where they went wrong . . . and make sure we come out with fire and ready to play.”


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