When Isaiah Cousins first met Buddy Hield, he liked him almost immediately. There were no growing pains and no reason to force a friendship. Although with very different games, Hield and Cousins were united through hard work – and an outgoing personality.
Ryan Spangler learned a new level of work ethic from the two, while teaching them a thing or two about Oklahoma lifestyle, lake boating and country music. Jordan Woodard knew Spangler from the time the two spent playing high school basketball. Both reached the state championship game as seniors. But when it came to Cousins and Hield, he didn’t know which to gravitate to when he joined the Sooners.
The boisterous Bahamian with a shot of gold.
The East Coast city kid with a permanent chip on his shoulder.
The blue-collar country boy with the lifted truck.
The small-town Midwestern with a high basketball IQ, who became the team’s ‘little brother.’
They have each provided something different for Oklahoma, which will likely write all four names into the starting line-up for the 101st time Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Cal State-Bakersfield. It’s a quartet that has revitalized Oklahoma basketball, back to the heyday of the late 80s, when it was competing for national championships.
The second-seeded Sooners are back there again with a group of players from different parts of the world who have all brought different styles of play to Norman. There’s one common ground that has brought them together.
“It’s just love for playing basketball,” Spangler said. “I think all of us love to work hard and get better. Now, we love to play for each other.”
First-year Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger and Lew Hill made a trip to Mt. Vernon – a suburb of New York City – and met a young Cousins in the gym at 6 a.m., when he didn’t want to interrupt his workout. Assistant coach Chris Crutchfield had seen the big-personality of Hield multiple times when he was a coach at Oral Roberts before Hield picked Oklahoma over Kansas.
After not being recruited by an in-state school, Spangler came back home on a transfer from Gonzaga. Kruger and assistant Steve Henson jumped at the chance to bring Spangler’s tenacity to Norman. Woodard was a hot commodity in the state, and Oklahoma couldn’t let that type of prospect slip out of its hands.
Kruger was never looking to find different pieces or players that each fit a particular mold. His process much was a much simpler one. It started with character, and then he looked for players that wanted to work and fit in Oklahoma’s system, players that wanted to be in Norman and were good teammates.
“You never know exactly how it’s going to fit or when it’s going to fit,” he said. “I think, day after day after day after day, you’re promoting the same thing and consistent with your expectations, the longer they are here the more apt they are to fit. It kind of works that way.”
Cousins brought the chip, the pull-up jumper, the inner-city dribbling style and high-pressure one-on-one defense. Hield was a leader from the start, one time challenging Blake Griffin to dunk on him as a freshman, and became the best outside threat in the nation.
Spangler didn’t care about his numbers. He only cared about winning, something that wasn’t exclusive to him. But he was a workman inside, willing to take a charge from any play and battle relentlessly for every rebound. Woodard, who was voted by teammates as the highest basketball IQ, was the final piece– figuring out exactly where he needed to fit and picking parts of his teammates’ games to emulate.
“We were ready and envisioned ourselves doing something,” Hield said. “Our teammates expected big things.”
Before this year, Oklahoma was the only team in college basketball that had gone two full years without an in-season change to the starting lineup. Before last year, the Sooners were the only major conference team to go a whole year without changing starters.
It has now been three full years without an in-season lineup change. The fifth piece has rotated: Cam Clark, TaShawn Thomas, Khadeem Lattin. The quartet has remained the same since Woodard jumped into the starting lineup as a freshman point guard.
The streak hasn’t been close to breaking.
When Spangler banged his knee against Iowa State, he certainly wasn’t coming out. Probably the closest it has come was Hield foot issues after off-season surgery. But that was three years ago.
No fluke injuries. No over-night illnesses. No fatigue. No quick hook from the coaching staff.
Being together has fueled a confidence in one another. It has laos built trust with a coach who has allowed the veterans figure out their own mix. Most importantly, it has allowed four very different players from very different backgrounds to find common ground.
“I think we learned a lot about each other in the gym,” Spangler said. “. . . We came together and made a pact that we were tired of losing.”