Lon Kruger is one of the guys who falls under the category of your favorite coach's favorite coach. He doesn't have a huge national reputation, but he is the only coach to ever take five different programs to the NCAA Tournament. In his fourth season at OU, he has the Sooners well on their way to being a perennial NCAA team. They tested themselves in non-conference, with wins over Butler, UCLA and Missouri and narrow losses to Creighton, Washington and Wisconsin and they started Big 12 play strong with a 73-63 home win over Baylor.
The strength of their team, as it has been the last few seasons, is their guard play. On the perimeter, they start two juniors and a sophomore - Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard - with a ton of experience playing together, all of whom can take the ball up the court themselves and start the offense. The duo of Hield and Cousins can get their shots off against anyone and Kruger does a good job of allowing them to operate in a lot of space. OU spreads the floor and moves the ball like an NBA team.
The difference for them this season could be upfront, where they have received a huge boost from TaShawn Thomas, a graduate transfer from the University of Houston. At 6'8 240, Thomas is a dynamic big man who can defend multiple positions and create shots for anyone on the team - he plays like a poor man's Boris Diaw. They have struggled at times to integrate him into the offense, but he's coming off his best performance in an OU uniform, dicing up Baylor's bizarre hybrid zone to the tune of 24 points and 8 rebounds.
Just as important has been his contributions on the defensive end, where he gives them some semblance of a shot-blocker, swatting 1.5 a game. OU has been primarily known as an offensive team under Kruger, but they are playing top 10 D this season. They have big, athletic guards who can keep their men in front of them, they have one big man who can clean up their mistakes and another (Ryan Spangler) who can clean the defensive glass. The Sooners have the pieces to play with any team in the country.
If there's a red flag from their win over Baylor, it's the lack of contributions from their bench, who only gave them 2 points. OU can't afford injuries or significant foul trouble to any of their five starters, as none of their reserves has really established themselves at the college level. If they are going to contend for a Big 12 championship this season, Kruger is going to have to figure out a way to get consistent production out of guys like Khadeem Lattin and Dinjiyl Walker. As is, they don't have a huge margin for error.
PG - Jordan Woodard (6'0 182) - Their floor general and the only consistent playmaker. On a team full of guys looking to get their own shot, Woodard is the one who keeps the ball moving and gets everyone involved. The problem with Woodard is that his three-point shot has completely abandoned him - he is shooting 12% from 3 after going 37% as a freshman. The question is how much of it is confidence is how much is regressing to the mean. Until he proves he can make that shot, teams are going to play off him and force him to look to score instead of distribute.
SG - Isaiah Cousins (6'4 187) - Cousins has continued to improve after a breakout season as a sophomore, averaging 13.5 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal a game on 47% shooting. He's long and athletic and he can score from almost anywhere on the floor - the only reason he doesn't get more publicity is he has been overshadowed by Buddy Hield for most of his career.
SF - Buddy Hield (6'4 210) - OU's primary option and a guy with a chance at making a run at Big 12 POY, depending on how the conference race shakes out. Of all OU's players, Hield is the one getting the most NBA love - DraftExpress has him at #85 in their Top 100. Unlike Jeff Capel, who went after the bluest of blue chips, Kruger has been building the program around really good college players with marginal NBA prospects. At the college level, Hield is a big, athletic guard who can dribble into 3's, so he can be take over a game at almost any time. You definitely want to mark him wherever he is and make him put the ball on the floor and make plays in traffic.
PF - TaShawn Thomas (6'8 240) - Thomas put up eye-popping stats in his three seasons at UH, but they haven't quite translated over to OU yet. It has been challenge to integrate him into the offense, as OU's guards are used to dominating the ball as opposed to playing inside-out. In that respect, playing Baylor's zone was the perfect opportunity for Thomas, since the guards had no choice but to give up the ball and let him make plays from the top of the key. He just has a great feel for the game - he's not the best athlete or the biggest guy on the floor, but he knows how to change speeds, read the defense and create a shot for either himself or one of his teammates. His ability to knock down the mid-range J was one of the keys to beating Baylor.
C - Ryan Spangler (6'8 230) - After transferring from Gonzaga, Spangler has turned into a quality role-playing big man at OU. He's never going to have a ton of offense run through him, but he bangs in the post, sets screens and does all the "little things" that help a team on both ends. He has even started to add a three-point shot to his game this season, going 7 for 16 (44%) from beyond the arc. The problem with Spangler is he's not all that big and he doesn't protect the rim, two important qualifications for a C. Baylor found most of its success on Saturday bullying him at the front of the rim.
Khadeem Lattin (13 minutes) and Dinjiyl Waker (10 minutes) were the only guys to get consistent run against Baylor and that seemed like it was mostly a matter of getting the starters a breather. Texas could have a lot of success against the OU second unit.
Keys to the Game:
1) Bully ball upfront - Spangler is not very big and OU has very little behind him. If the Texas big men can establish position early and often, they are going to force the Sooners into some tough decisions. Johnathan Motley, Baylor's star freshman big man, had 24 points on 12 shots on Saturday.
2) Turnovers - OU's best chance is to speed up the Texas guards and get the game going up and down, where they would have the edge in perimeter firepower. That's going to be the line of attack that most Big 12 teams will try to use against Rick Barnes team this season, so it will be a good preview for the types of challenges that Isaiah Taylor will have in front of him. He was up and down in his return against Texas Tech, but we will need him at his best against OU.
3) Can OU shoot Texas out of the zone? One of the biggest benefits of the zone for Texas is that it forces the other team to slow the tempo and turn it into a half-court game. This will be a good view into how committed Barnes is to it and how successful it can be in Big 12 play, as OU has the pieces - a playmaking big man, multiple 3 point shooters - to pick apart even a good zone. That's what they did to Baylor on Saturday, although Kruger vs. Scott Drew was probably a bit of an X and O's mismatch.
OU is one of the teams that Texas will be competing with at the top of the standings all season, so you want to get things off to a good start by protecting your home court. Hopefully the Erwin Center is bumping because this is a big game and it should be fun. The game is at 8:00 PM Central on ESPN.