NORMAN, Okla. – It gets said after every single Oklahoma basketball game. There’s just no way this starting five that has played together for two full seasons and going strong on season No. 3 can keep playing around 35 minutes per game.
Eventually the bench is going to have to make some contributions to get things going. On the surface of OU’s thrilling 70-68 win against West Virginia, you don’t see it.
You see 14 bench points, hardly an indicator of quality play from the reserves. But coach Lon Kruger knows what a difference a couple of his guys made Saturday, starting with redshirt freshman forward Dante Buford.
“Extremely,” said Kruger of how important it was for Buford. “For Dante to step in there and do the things he did, it was a big step forward breaking out a little bit.”
Buford has seen time in 15 of OU’s 16 games, but just because he’s on the court hasn’t always meant he has been engaged. Against the Mountaineers, he was ready and showed it in the first half, playing 12 quality minutes with Khadeem Lattin saddled with two fouls in six minutes.
Buford’s shot wasn’t falling, but his aggressiveness was there in getting to the free throw line. He finished with nine points and two rebounds. Having entered the game shooting 6 of 8 from the charity stripe for the whole season, he was good on 7-of-8 attempts Saturday.
What Buford gave to the team in the first half is the same thing freshman guard Christian James gave to the Sooners in the second half.
He played a mere one minute in the first half before providing a nice spark in six minutes down the stretch. When the Sooners were clawing their way back into the game, James was on the floor.
“Christian can be very aggressive in attacking,” Kruger said. “We haven’t seen that much out of him during ballgames. He showed that. As he gets that confidence, you’ll continue to see that more and more. We need that to continue to grow.”
James did a little bit of everything two points, three rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block and didn’t force the action as he had zero field goal attempts.
Guard Buddy Hield still played 39 minutes in this one and that will be a potential cause for concern going forward for the Sooners. Because of Buford and James, nobody else eclipsed the 34-minute mark as the Sooners prepare to head to Ames, Iowa, to take on Iowa State on Big Monday.
Not just another road showdown, but a road showdown where the Sooners will be the undisputed No. 1-ranked team in the country.
To stay that way OU will continued to need quality outings from guys like James and Buford and the rest of the bench. Fourteen points isn’t a lot, but it equals what the bench had provided to OU in the previous three games combined.
You have to start somewhere. For Buford and James, West Virginia could have been just that.