COLUMBUS, Ohio – Sitting quietly in the corner of the locker room amongst his otherwise euphoric teammates, Oklahoma forward TaShawn Thomas had given no thought to the months of work that the Sooners had put into their ever-developing defensive mentality.
Not until he was directly asked did Thomas’ eyes get bigger, almost inaudibly understanding that a season’s worth of practice stopping teams is exactly what sent Oklahoma to the Sweet 16 for a matchup with Michigan State, which recently knocked off Virginia – widely considered to be the best defensive team in the country.
“All that hard work we had put in is paying off,” Thomas said.
Oklahoma’s great improvement on the defensive end has been well-documented: 13 fewer points per game allowed, a jump from the bottom quarter to the top quarter in total points and one of the best defensive efficiency teams in the entire country.
Seeing it all come together just when Oklahoma needed it was special for Kruger, who had managed plenty of good defensive units before this season.
“It’s very rewarding; very important,” Kruger said. “We’ve said all year that we thought this group was better positioned to win games late in the year and in the post season because of their ability to get stops.
“. . . They brought it out at the right time in the second half against Dayton.”
Down by nine points, Oklahoma’s defense was spurred on by a quick offensive spurt. Motivated and having a reason to get stops, the Sooners (24-10) held Dayton without a point for 9:04 and without a field goal for more than 10 minutes.
During that stretch, the Sooners forced five turnover and the Flyers, who had just scored on five-straight possessions, missed four shots in the lane.
“Everyone just buckled down, took care of their assignments and helped each other a lot more,” Thomas said.
The exact reason for Oklahoma’s immediate success was debated after the game. Some players said they started defending as one, others said that there was more of an emphasis on one-on-one stops.
Kruger saw a little bit of both.
“Individually, I thought we took on the challenge of not relying on help,” Kruger said. “It’s 5-on-5, so if a guy gets an angle on you, which good players are going to do, then the help has to be there.
“It is a case, individually, of not relying on the help but when it’s need, the team is there to help. I think it’s probably a combination of the two.”
There were great individual plays, like Buddy Hield’s open-court block in the final minutes. While the Sooners forced a turnover or shot in the final 10 seconds of the shot clock on three of five possessions to take the lead with six minutes to play.
“All we do is stay together and lock in,” Hield said. “I hope we stay hot.”
The Sooners are starting to rack up some pretty good numbers on the defensive end at this point in the season, exactly the time most teams want to be playing their most motivated basketball at that end of the court.
Oklahoma’s field goal percentage allowed is the lowest since 1960 and will likely finish with only one of two seasons since that year with a percentage defense lower than .400.
After setting a Big 12 record for fewest points in a conference game (36) against Texas Tech, Oklahoma has held 27 of its 34 opponents this season below their average.
This season started on the defensive end for Oklahoma. It looks like it’s going to finish there – for better or for worse.“It was big. Coach told us last year that defense wins championships,” Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler said. “. . . I think that’s why we got two wins.”