The names have definitely become familiar if not monotonous.
Oklahoma was the only “Power 5” Conference team to start the same lineup every game this season, one of only two schools to do it and make the tournament and the only school left in the field with the consistency of having the same five names called out before every game.
Jordan Woodard, Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler started each game in the past two seasons, and TaShawn Thomas went over 130 career starts with the Sooners’ current run in the NCAA Tournament.
It would be far more of a shock if one of their names didn’t get called win No. 3 Oklahoma tips off at 9:30 CST Friday against Michigan State, the seven seed in the East Region.
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger knocked on wood when he talked about last weekend about the luckiness of no injuries but knows there’s more to it than just having his best players playing all season – although he said that was the best thing.
“Guys understanding what their roles are going in,” he said. “They’re not bouncing back and forth. . . . It also means no one has been in a big slump where somebody need to get out of the lineup and get refreshed. The guys have been consistent throughout the year.
Even when Thomas was injected into the lineup, it seemed like the Sooners (24-10), who are the only team to have a constant starting lineup the past two seasons, never missed a beat.
Thomas had been a three-year starter at Houston but fit in almost seamlessly with Oklahoma, showing a few speed bumps early in the transition but finding his place by Big 12 Conference play.
“This helped us build chemistry along the way, and I feel like at this time of the season, we know what these guys are going to do,” Woodard said. “We got a good feel for things like that. We’ve just got to keep playing together, keep getting better, game in and game out.”
Nobody comes out of their lane, every knows what they’re supposed to do on offense and defense.
Woodard sets the tempo, Hield is the primary scorer, Thomas is the low-post offensive presence, Spangler is the heart of the team and best rebounder and Cousins is a bit of a utility man – capable of running the point, knocking down a big 3-pointer or slashing to the lane.
“We’re a veteran group,” Spangler said. “We’ve been around each other a little while now. Coach is the one that puts that pressure and that praise on us. Whatever happens, we’re going to play.”
Not until now though, did the experience really pay off.
Without questions surrounding the starting lineup and with nobody slumping too bad that they needed to be bench, Oklahoma can focus on the most important part of the season – the games.
With the long run of starts comes experience and maturity, something that always shines through in the NCAA Tournament. Just ask Michigan State.
The Sooners have almost 13 combined seasons worth of starts in the starting lineup alone. That’s kept them focused and are growing together at the most important time.
“We’re pretty good as a team in closing out,” Spangler said. “Earlier in the year, we wouldn’t have been able to close out games like that. I think we’ve matured, grown up and know what to do in late-game situations like that.”