It started late this spring, when Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield announced that he was returning to the Sooners for his senior season. He sat at a table in the depths of the Lloyd Noble Center with Sooners’ coach Lon Kruger at his side and said that he wanted to make the Final Four.
On Monday, the expectations continued to grow as Oklahoma was ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press preseason poll – the highest preseason ranking since 2005.
Every year, Oklahoma has improved under Kruger. The win total has increased in each of the first four years, from 15 wins in Year 1 to 24 wins and an appearance in the Sweet 16 last year.
“The expectations are a little bit different,” Kruger said. “You work to get to that point, but you really can’t change what you do every day in preparation. The guys have done a really good job of making progress consistently throughout the year and making good plays for each other and playing hard.
“Certainly, we don’t want to change any of that. We just have to do all of that a little bit better.”
Oklahoma, which was ranked behind Iowa State and Kansas in the preseason poll, can’t hide from the hype. It shows up on Hield’s Twitter feed constantly, with people mentioning him for every major preseason accolade he continues to rack up.
Kruger has talked about it with his team, a group that’s ready for the expectation and has four starters entering their third year as leaders on the team.
Isaiah Cousins, Jordan Woodard and Ryan Spangler are starting for the third straight year. It was Hield though who started it, igniting a team with his return and giving them a vision of what they could achieve – still in the wake of a disappointing postseason loss.
“Now, we know it’s a possibility,” Woodard said. “We got halfway, Sweet 16. Now, we’re trying to go all the way, Final 4.”
To accomplish that, everything has to be a little bit better. Hield works out three or four times a game, and Cousins is consistently with him. Oklahoma collectively can’t get in the gym much more often than they do now.
It’s about improving the little things that they do well and making them great.
“It’s an older group,” said Kruger, who led Oklahoma to its first NCAA Tournament win since 2009 last year. “We should be able to take that up a notch and make progress in all of those areas. We have to cover on the defensive end a little better again than we did last year. We have to rebound a little better.
Oklahoma isn’t hiding from its expectations. It can’t. The Sooners just have to be ready for what it to come.
“It’s very motivating,” Woodard said. “I use it as motivation. It’s hard to not see all the expectations that people have for us, but at the same time, it just makes us more focused that you have to play your best every night. You’ll get the opponent’s best shot.”