There was a new pep in Oklahoma’s collective step Monday afternoon at practice. It was far more reminiscent of Saturday’s victory against West Virginia, when the Sooners went on the road riding a two-game losing skid to knock off a top-10 opponent, than it was just a few days early after a demoralizing defeat against Texas Tech.
Against the Red Raiders just a week ago, Oklahoma, which remained the No. 3 team in the country Monday as well, the Sooners lacked emotion. A team that seems to thrive off momentum and energy had lost all of it. They weren’t having fun.
All that seems to be back.
“We needed to regain our confidence and get our swagger back,” Oklahoma forward Khadeem Lattin said. “We needed it to get back to our old style of play, and we did that and we executed well and we did that.”
Saturday wasn’t even Oklahoma’s former style. The Sooners shot almost 50 percent from behind the arc during the first 20 games of the season, when Oklahoma reeled off an undefeated non-conference season.
During the losing skid, that percentage dropped below 32 percent. Oklahoma (21-5, 9-5) shot 29.6 percent from behind the arc against West Virginia – not exactly a stellar improvement that would have spark an emotional revival.
“Our identity (has) been so tied to the shooting, when we haven't shot it well, we haven't done other things well,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “This is a ball game where we opened up not shooting it well, but we were still up 10-2. So it was definitely because of the effort and energy and activity defensively.”
Oklahoma still has its trump card as the best 3-point shooting team in the country, but in a year when no team can play anything but its best and win in the NCAA Tournament, the Sooners are slowly figuring out that they don’t have to shoot the lights out to reach Houston – the site of the Final Four.
They can’t shoot like they are in the dark either though.
“We're trying to get better in other areas, and we didn't really do that,” Kruger said. “Once we stopped making shots, we didn't improve being physical on the boards for being physical defensively and we lost games. But we've gotten better the last two practices defensively and rebounding the ball, and I still think we'll shoot the ball well again.”
Kruger knew that eventually Oklahoma was going to stop shooting better than 50 percent from behind the arc as a team. The law of averages was going to slow down the scoring output. He didn’t say it was because of fatigue for a nucleus that practices relentlessly and is nearing 100-straight games started together – playing more than 30 minutes per game this season.
And it happened all at once.
Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins can’t seem to find the basket at the same time, making the start of the season, when Cousins, Woodard and Buddy Hieldwere all making shots, that much more remarkable.
Some of the shots are more contested as the Big 12 Conference has learned to grind down the Sooners’ fast-paced, transition-based style. Finding that peak again is just about seeing one or two more shots going down to help boost the Sooners’ rising self-assuredness.
“It’s just a confidence thing,” Kruger said. “. . . We’d taken those shots in the last month and knocked down 55, 66 percent of them, which we were doing, the open ones. We just need to make a few. You make a few, and you get that swagger going again in terms of making shots for each other.”