NORMAN, Okla. -- A loss to San Diego State in the NCAA Tournament's round of 64 closed the curtains on the 2012-13 Oklahoma men's basketball season last March in Philadelphia, Pa.
The defeat was painful -- all season-ending losses are -- but the Sooners could hold their heads high given the fact the program had finished below .500 each of the previous three seasons.
Picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 preseason coaches' poll last year, OU, under the direction of second-year head coach Lon Kruger, tied for fourth with an 11-7 conference record and went 20-9 in the regular season. It was the program's best performance since 2008-09, the year Blake Griffin ruled the college basketball world.
Repeating that success in 2013-14 would be difficult, as OU was losing its two leading scorers to graduation: Romero Osby was a first-team All-Big 12 forward and Steven Pledger finished his career as the school's 13th-leading all-time scorer. The pair combined to average 27.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game last season. Also moving on were fellow seniors Casey Arent, Andrew Fitzgerald and Sam Grooms, the team's lone true point guard on scholarship.
As if those collective shoes weren't big enough to fill, March 27 brought news that would make the Sooners' prospects for a fruitful 2013-14 season even more challenging. Junior forward Amath M'Baye, the team's third-leading scorer (10.1 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (5.2 rpg), informed the coaching staff he would forgo his final year of eligibility and turn pro. M'Baye was expected to be the cornerstone player on this year's OU roster, and his decision caught everyone by surprise.
All told, OU wound up losing 68 percent of its scoring, 62 percent of its rebounding and 56 percent of its assists from last season. Not exactly the recipe you like to be working from when trying to cook up back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.
To the surprise of many, this year's Sooners are on pace to easily surpass the success of last year's squad. As of Feb. 19, OU is already 19-7 and tied for third place in the Big 12 at 8-5, just one game out of second place. Its 8-4 record away from home is tied (with Kansas) for best in the league, and Kruger's crew plays three of its final five regular season games at home.
Several newcomers have helped offset the loss of key performers from last year. Among them, sophomore transfer Ryan Spangler averages 10.5 points and a conference-leading 9.9 rebounds a game. Freshman point guard Jordan Woodard averages 11.0 points and ranks sixth in the league with his 4.7 assists a contest.
Those two players were expected to play pivotal roles on this year's squad. More of a surprise has been the remarkable offensive improvement exhibited by a quartet of holdovers from last season -- senior forwards Cameron Clark and Tyler Neal, and sophomore guards Isaiah Cousins and Buddy Hield.
Last year that foursome combined to score 533 points, pull down 317 rebounds and shoot .388 from the field and .250 from 3-point range (36 makes). This season they have already teamed to put up 1,274 points and grab 456 boards while shooting .451 from the field and .397 from behind the arc (145 makes).
Below is a look at the improvement Clark, Neal, Cousins and Hield have made this season, and the reasons they give for the big jump in individual production.
SENIOR FORWARD CAMERON CLARK
Hailed earlier this season by national pundits as one of the most improved players in the country, Clark came off the bench every game last season and averaged 6.5 points and 3.2 rebounds a contest while attempting only one 3-pointer on the year (he made it). This season, the every-game starter is averaging 15.4 points and 5.7 rebounds and is 28-for-60 from 3-point range for a sparkling .467 percentage. He has produced the team's top three scoring totals this year (games of 32 against Michigan State and Kansas, and 31 vs. UT Arlington), and on three different January occasions was on top of the Big 12's season scoring average list.
|Cameron Clark - Opportunity Seized|
|Points Per Game||6.5||15.4|
|Rebounds Per Game||3.2||5.7|
|Assists Per Game||0.4||1.1|
|3-Point FG Percentage||1.000 (1-for-1)||.467 (28-for-60)|
CLARK ON HIS IMPROVEMENT
"For me, it came down to shooting a lot more in the offseason. And now, it shows with my confidence. Just getting up extra shots all the time and trying to expand my game has really helped. I was in the practice gym all the time in the summer, whenever I had free time. I'd be in the gym, go get something to eat, come back to the gym. Go to the mall, come back to the gym and shoot. It was something I really wanted to work on because people said I really couldn't shoot the ball that well from 3-point range. Coach Kruger helped me out a lot, too. He'd be in his office and I'd be in the gym shooting. He'd come down and help me. There were times I'd go to the gym late at night -- like 1 or 2 a.m. -- and I'd find Buddy (Hield) already in there shooting. It's just about trying to get better.
"I feel like a lot of people have been sleeping on me and I'm just trying to wake them up. I feel like I'm one of the better college basketball players out there. I've just got to show it; bring that hard-nosed mentality, whether it's scoring or defense. Just go out there and compete."
SENIOR FORWARD TYLER NEAL
Neal played in 27 of OU's 32 games last year and averaged just 1.1 points and 1.4 rebounds in 6.8 minutes an outing. He shot .214 from the field and .261 from 3-point range (6-for-23). His minutes have increased this season and so have all of his other stats. Neal is averaging 7.0 points and 3.4 rebounds in 16.0 minutes a game off the bench, and is shooting career bests of .463 from the field and .426 from long distance (26-for-61). He has scored in double figures eight times this year after not doing it in any game as a junior. Over the last four contests, he is averaging 11.3 points and 4.5 rebounds.
|Tyler Neal - Opportunity Seized|
|Points Per Game||1.1||7.0|
|Rebounds Per Game||1.4||3.4|
|Field Goal Percentage||.214||.463|
|3-Point FG Percentage||.261 (6-for-23)||.426 (26-for-61)|
NEAL ON HIS IMPROVEMENT
"First, I think it's the (increased) opportunity. In the beginning of the season you're kind of figuring out your role, and once you get into Big 12 play your role isn't going to change a whole lot. You kind of know what to expect as far as when you'll go in and having a feel for the flow of the game. You also know what to expect as far as what the team needs when you come in the game. If we're hurting on offense, it's fun to come in and give that spark.
"The second part of it is confidence; confidence in myself and in one another. One of the strengths of this team -- and one of the reasons why a lot of guys are playing well -- is that everyone believes the next man can knock down the shot if you get the ball to them. As for me personally, my confidence comes from just knowing that the team needs me a little more than it did last year when we had Romero (Osby) and Amath (M'Baye) playing the big man positions for large stretches of games, and Cam (Clark) too. It's helpful knowing that if you don't play well, the team's probably going to suffer because of it. Everybody kind of thinks that way and the result is increased performance."
A starter in 14 games as a true freshman last year (many of them at point guard), Cousins averaged 2.7 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 15.9 minutes a contest. He shot .279 from the field and .250 from 3-point range (10-for-40). This season, after moving to the wing, Cousins is averaging 10.3 points, 4.2 boards and 2.0 assists in an average of 29.1 minutes. A starter in every game, he has upped his field goal mark to .428 and his 3-point percentage to .353 (24-for-68). He never scored more than 10 points in a game last season, but has scored in double figures in 13 of the last 23 games, and had a 21-point effort vs. Baylor on Feb. 8.
|Isaiah Cousins - Opportunity Seized|
|Points Per Game||2.7||10.3|
|Rebounds Per Game||2.0||4.2|
|Assists Per Game||1.6||2.0|
|Field Goal Percentage||.279||.428|
|3-Point FG Percentage||.250 (10-for-40)||.353 (24-for-68)|
COUSINS ON HIS IMPROVEMENT
"I'd say I've improved the most with my shooting and my defense. Offensively, I'm just attacking more this year, being more free. The biggest reason for my improvement is that people didn't think I could do it. But I knew it was going to happen, so I just worked hard and played my game. I knew I was going to have a different role than I had last year, and it's worked. A lot of people didn't know I could make (the transition), but Coach Kruger knew and he had the faith in me to do it. So I spent a lot of time in the gym and my hard work has paid off.
"As far as my shooting, I just have more confidence than I had last year. I feel like if my first shot goes in, I'll probably be good the rest of the game. If my first two go, I'll probably be kind of hot. If I make one, that's kind of like the trigger for me to keep going. If I don't, I just have to try to find a rhythm. All the shots I take in the gym give me confidence. The summer trip to Europe also helped me as far as getting a feel for the team and figuring out where I could get my shots on the floor. Since it was summer, starting to run our plays that early helped because it gave us a jumpstart as far as playing games against other people. That benefited me as a player."
SOPHOMORE GUARD BUDDY HIELD
OU's leading returner in several statistical categories from last season, Hield started 13 of his 27 games as a freshman and averaged 7.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 25.1 minutes per outing. He shot .388 from the field and .238 from 3-point range (19 makes). A year later, Hield has started every game and is averaging a team-high 16.7 points a contest, as well as 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists. His shooting has improved dramatically, to .447 from the field and .381 from 3-point distance (67 makes). In Big 12 play, Hield ranks fifth in the league in scoring (17.5 ppg) and second in 3-pointers per game (3.4).
|Buddy Hield - Opportunity Seized|
|Points Per Game||7.8||16.7|
|Rebounds Per Game||4.2||4.3|
|Field Goal Percentage||.388||.447|
|3-Point FG Percentage||.238 (19-for-80)||.381 (67-for-176)|
HIELD ON HIS IMPROVEMENT
"I think it's just my time. You know, last year we had guys like Romero (Osby), Amath (M'Baye) and Steve (Pledger) -- it was their time. There was no way I could take over their shine because they were already polished. Now the time is right for me, and Coach Kruger has helped put me in the right positions to score the ball. It started in the pre-season exhibition games when I was making shots. That helped me get my confidence up. Then starting with the opener against Alabama, I just said that I believed in myself and can do this. I just wanted to try to be a good scorer and be as efficient as I can to help my team win games. I just want to keep making progress and keep learning because basketball can be funny with you sometimes. You just have to keep getting better.
"I think about being consistent every day. It's hard to be consistent, but as a player I just try to be mentally focused before each game. Coach Kruger and the assistant coaches talk to us about being focused between the lines and being mentally strong every time out there. I just try to let the game come to me. Sometimes I rush it, but I just try to be in the right spot at the right moment and make the right plays. Just stay in rhythm and don't take bad shots."
- By Mike Houck