Throughout the summer, SoonerSports.com will focus on each of the returning Sooners from Oklahoma men's basketball in a reoccurring feature series, "Commit to the Plan"
Basketball season comes early this season, as the Sooners announced they will head “down under” to New Zealand and Australia for a four-game exhibition foreign tour next month. The 12 days away will not only bring the young Sooners closer together on the court, but will provide incredible bonding opportunities as they take in two beautiful countries on the other side of the world.
Among the team, the trip's biggest fan has to be redshirt sophomore forward Matt Freeman. Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, Freeman has the rare opportunity of showing his teammates and coaching staff his hometown while also playing in front of friends and family who aren't able to Norman to see him compete collegiately.
“It's going to be pretty special,” said Freeman. “For me, the amount of time I get to go home is very limited during the year, so anytime I get to go home is meaningful. It's extra special that I'll get to be there with my other family – getting to take everyone home that's close to me here and show them where I've been brought up. It's going to be a really memorable trip and really fun too.”
Freeman joined the Sooners midway through their historic 2015-16 season, graduating from high school in his home country and December and redshirting at Oklahoma in the spring semester. The early arrival in Norman gave Freeman a unique opportunity to train with the Final Four squad and prepare him for his first season of game action. While the experience was certainly helpful, nothing compares to adjusting to game action.
“It was certainly an adjustment, getting used to it at first,” said Freeman. “That first semester I was getting used to everything as well, but nothing really compares to when you're stepping out onto the floor and start playing games. It was a learning experience for me, and I think it was a learning experience for a lot of guys out there. The game is a lot quicker here and more physical than back home, so there were things I had to adjust in my own game. I had to become a lot more patient and not rush, but everything is an adjustment if you want to become successful in this league.”
Freeman's bread and butter has always been his 3-point shooting. Standing at 6-9, the Kiwi can provide a mismatch from deep at the 4 position, and was able to use his size and shooting to his advantage early on in the season. Freeman dropped 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting (3-of-4 from 3) in OU's season-opening win against Northwestern State - the most scored by an OU freshman in a season opener since Steven Pledger scored 21 to begin the 2009-10 season.
As the season progressed, Freeman's shot cooled off, something he credited to impatience and frustration based on his own expectations. While the shooting slump was difficult to overcome in the heart of the Big 12 schedule, Freeman says some new perspective and extra work in the offseason has helped him rediscover his stroke.
“I think I lost a little bit in the second half of the season,” said Freeman. “A few consecutive games I wasn't hitting shots and then it got to my head. It was kind of rough for me in the second half of the season. I took some time in the offseason and found my shot again – it's shown in practice, the shots are falling. Every great shooter knows that to be a great shooter you just need to have repetition. You have to get in the gym when other people won't and get as many shots as you can. It comes back to the old saying about quality over quantity, so just getting quality shots that will be beneficial to me.”
While sinking 3s during offseason shooting drills is one thing, how can Freeman adjust his sharpshooting come game time in November?
“Poise,” he explained. “When the opposition's defense and offense gets more and more intense, just don't rush aspects of your game. Everything will slow down if you slow down your own game and that translates to decisions you make on the floor, offensively and defensively. That's pretty important for my game…I just have to keep trying to be the most intense dude on the floor. Work ethic is huge for me and I just need to keep pushing myself no matter how tired and fatigued I get.”
Fortunately for Freeman, he isn't the only one pushing himself through the long months of summer – his entire team is.
“Everyone is pushing me hard,” said Freeman. “Possession wise, every big. Everyone is out there competing. We have a full roster, walk-ons and all, that go out there every practice, regardless if you're getting game time, and pushing each other as hard as we can. I think it's showing right now. There's not one man that's slacking off and not pushing each other. Everyone is going hard.”
The atmosphere in summer workouts has been intense and consistent from week to week. A combination of tough losses and missed opportunities mixed with the glimpses of talent the Sooners displayed last season have resulted in a starving hunger that's apparent to anyone watching the team at work. It's especially evident to Freeman.
“It just feels like a different team right now,” said Freeman. “We didn't lose as many guys as we did back a year ago, but it just feels like a really different team. All of us are just pushing ourselves and pushing each other every practice. I think that's the most important thing when it comes to the season starting – that we've pushed ourselves so much that we're conditioned for whatever is thrown at us. We know what to expect now and need to get all of the younger guys on the same page. They know that when it comes, it's coming. The Big 12 is a tough conference to win, but that's our goal – to go all the way. We should set the bar no lower.”
The Sooners first chance to display their new mentality against outside opposition will be on August 6, in Freeman's hometown of Auckland.
While the Sooners commit to preparing for next season, don't miss your chance to #Commit to making a difference inside the Lloyd Noble Center. Current season ticket holders can renew their tickets with just a $50 deposit. Fans interested in reserving new season tickets can learn more here.