Before this season, all that was discussed was Oklahoma finally getting that first tournament victory – whether it be in the Big 12 Tournament or the NCAA Tournament.
The Sooners did that, winning once in Kansas City and twice during the ‘Big Dance.’ Now suddenly, what was once the goal has become the building block for what Oklahoma hopes to achieve every season.
With the vast majority of the rotation coming back and five new players likely to enter the rotation – some even as starters, the Sooners are looking forward and hoping to use what they accomplished this season as a jumping off point not a bar that can’t be reached.
“We’re stepping up,” said Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler, who is currently set to be one of three seniors in next year’s starting lineup. “I think we’ve gotten better every year. I think we’ll put in the work this offseason to get to the Elite 8 next year. Final Four, that’s our goal. I think this group is willing to work for that.”
The loss of Frank Booker, who decided to pursue a transfer just a few days after the end of the season, will hurt, but with what Oklahoma has to build on, it won’t be season-altering.
The Sooners have an immediate piece to plug in off the bench – redshirt freshman forward Dante Buford – and an incoming freshman who will likely help immediately as an all-around threat – Rashard Odomes.
A year that was the best in Oklahoma’s recent history and the best season under fourth-year coach Lon Kruger is now just a jumping off point. The mountain top has become a trampoline.“This group has a new perspective on what they need to do,” Kruger said. “It sounds simple, but just play better basketball for 40 minutes. . . . I think we can jump that to another level. Just continue to improve across the board.”
Finding offense inside
The greatest benefit of senior forward TaShawn Thomas’ immediate transfer waiver was that it gave Oklahoma an immediate offensive presence in the post.
The worst part? It leaves Oklahoma with a major hole inside offensively.
Spangler will be the most experienced, but his offensive game is still developing. Jamuni McNeace and JuCo transfer Akolda Manyang will be far more visible on the defensive end, with rare flashes of offensive potential.
Soon-to-be-sophomore Khadeem Lattin could be the most likely to take up Thomas’ role next season.“It’s hard to say at this point,” Kruger said. “We’ll see much more of an offensive player in Khadeem, more than people understand at this point. We didn’t see much of that this year because he didn’t have that role.”
Kruger said that he expects Lattin to blossom in that role as a primary offensive threat when given the opportunity, and Spangler said he’ll get Lattin and McNeace in the gym immediately to try and fill the hole left by Thomas.
“They realize what they have to step up and do,” Spangler said. “Somebody has to fill Tay’s scoring and rebound. I think about how much better they’ve gotten this year. They’ll be willing to do that.”
Another possibility is a matchup switch. Lattin has a developing 14-foot jump shot and both Buford and Odomes could wind up as big wings, able to post up smaller outside players.
Odomes’ high school coach Billy White said Kruger even mentioned that as a possibility for Odomes next season.
Kruger didn’t say he was surprised by Booker’s decision to transfer, instead pointing out how much the transfer process is part of the game today.
Oklahoma’s entire starting frontcourt and half of the eight-man rotation were transfers at some point.
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” he said. “Frank is going to have a new opportunity. Someone here is going to have more minutes available. It just works out that way.”
The question for Oklahoma is: Who takes those minutes?
Kruger immediately pointed to incoming freshmen Odomes and Christian James, who is recovering from a broken leg in August. He also said that Dinjiyl Walker could play a major role after working through a season of transition – coming over from Iowa Western Community College last season.
“We’ve got Dinjiyl Walker, who played some last year but who will have a much better senior year,” Kruger said. “Sometimes that first year after a junior college situation takes some time. I think we’ll see Dinjiyl get a lot better results next year.”