Woodard becoming the PG that OU needs

Developing a shot and protecting the ball has made the sophomore invaluable for Sooners

COLUMBUS, Ohio – There was a time when Oklahoma point guard Jordan Woodard was a prime candidate for a sophomore slump.

He missed two early buzzer-beaters during the non-conference schedule and midway through the Big 12 Conference season, he was struggling to maintain the Oklahoma offense.

The Sooners were winning, most of the time, but Woodard posted more turnovers than assists in three of five games – matching the number in one game. Usually soft-spoken, Woodard seemed to recoil even further into himself off the court – hushed when speaking with the media.

There’s more of a confidence in his voice now, having closed the season with no turnovers in three of the final four games before the NCAA Tournament, where every possession matters.

That’s not something lost on Oklahoma or Woodard, the master of the Sooners’ tempo.

“He runs this team and our offense,” Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler said. “He’s figured out when we need to go fast and when we need to go slow. He distributes the ball really well.”

Woodard will be front and center once again as Oklahoma prepares for its second-round game against No. 11 Dayton on Sunday.

It’s a new Woodard. Spangler says it maturity. Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield called it an improved confidence because of a developing jump shot.

Woodard agreed, saying that it’s a renewed dedication in practice, extensive hours of film and an invigorated relationship with Sooners coach Lon Kruger that has changed his play on the court.

“You just have to have that mental focus going into the game,” said Woodard, who posted a 2.17 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. “You just can’t go out there and play. You have to talk to coach and understand what’s going in within the flow of the game.”

There isn’t a more important player for Oklahoma than Woodard when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. Hield and Isaiah Cousins are there to make shots. Spangler and TaShawn Thomas have all the ability to dominant inside.

But in the theater of the postseason when every possession matters exponentially, it’s on Woodard to make sure Oklahoma makes the most of each one.

“It’s always important that he does a good job of setting the pace, pushing the ball,” Kruger said. “. . . He’s taking good care of the ball, shooting it with more confidence lately. His game has progressed especially in the last month or so. Big games come along, he’s been there and he stepped up and he’s delivered.”

Where Woodard missed late 3-pointers against Washington and Creighton, he has made game-winning plays in the waning seconds. His coast-to-coast drive set up Hield’s game-winning tip against Kansas, and a clutch pass nearly gave Oklahoma a chance to beat Iowa State in the Big 12 Conference Tournament.

Earlier this season, defenses sagged off Woodard – not worried about the point guard’s ability to make shots. He hit just 35.7 percent during his freshman year and shot better than 40 percent just four times through the first 18 games.

That’s changed just a bit. After a 0-for-6 performance in a home loss to Kansas State, which included a miss on the rushed last-second game winner, Woodard has shot no worse than 33 percent in 15 of Oklahoma’s final 18 contests.

“He’s really turning into the point guard we need him to be, making plays on the offensive and defensive end, “ Hield said. “We’re just trying to get him focused even more so he can make shots. It’s fun seeing your point guard make shots. Teams were backing him at first but now they have to play him tight because he’s hitting shots. It’s good for us.”

During the past month, Woodard’s relationship hasn’t changed much with Kruger, who Woodard said teaches him something knew every day. Kruger hasn’t noticed a chance either, still very demanding of his young point guard.

What has changed is Woodard himself. He’s more confident, something he said has developed because of living in the gym. He understand the new offense, a change from last year’s up-tempo style to a slightly more reserved attack.

He knows exactly what Kruger wants on the court, capable of translating the message every time down court.

Still, there’s more room for Woodard to improve.

“We’re pretty demanding and our expectations are high for our point guard,” Kruger said. “He probably wonders sometimes about why we want more and why we expect more. We’re going to do that with Jordan, because he’s got the capability, as good as he’s done, of doing more.

“If he couldn’t then we’d be happy where he’s at and stop talking to him. He’s done a really good job, but I think he’s got his best basketball ahead of him.” Oklahoma needs it to be as it tries to make the Sweet 16 for only the second time since 2003.



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