By Jeff Latzke, AP Sports Writer
NORMAN, Okla. —
Take a couple of veteran players who are used to starting, give their roles to unpolished freshmen and it might spell trouble for a basketball team’s chemistry.
But Lon Kruger is making it work at Oklahoma.
In his second season in charge of the Sooners, Kruger has put three freshmen plus transfer Amath M’Baye in prominent roles, while asking veterans Andrew Fitzgerald, Cameron Clark and Sam Grooms to come off the bench.
With a little tweaking over the past few weeks, Kruger is starting to see the results he wants with the Sooners (10-3, 1-0 Big 12).
A come-from-behind win at West Virginia got Oklahoma off to the right start in conference play, and next up is today’s Bedlam rivalry game against Oklahoma State (11-3, 1-1).
“Right now, it’s a good mix. The old guys and the new guys have meshed together well all season, and it’s nice having that experience coming off the bench,” Kruger said Friday.
Fitzgerald, Clark and Grooms all started both of last year’s Bedlam rivalry games, with Fitzgerald and Clark both being entrenched in the lineup throughout the past two seasons.
But now, they’ve fallen in line with the arrival of freshmen Buddy Hield, Je’lon Hornbeak and Isaiah Cousins and M’Baye becoming eligible after transferring from Wyoming.
“For the most part, we’re doing the same thing in our roles. It’s just we’re not starting or we’re not playing as many minutes,” Grooms said. “We’re still asked to do what you do best on the basketball court.”
The Sooners had a rare nonconference loss at the Lloyd Noble Center against Stephen F. Austin one week before Christmas, but Kruger said he’s seen growth since then. Hornbeak is adjusting to a shift to point guard, and Hield has become a sparkplug and even moved into the starting lineup.
His scoring numbers haven’t changed much, but he’s providing more on the offensive glass and with assists and steals.
“Every team needs a guy like that to help you do the dirty work sometimes. That’s what you’ve got to do as a basketball player,” Hield said. “I feel like my scoring will come. I’ve just got to be patient with it.”
While Cousins’ numbers haven’t been as impressive — and Hield replaced him in the starting five — Kruger said there’s been growth in his game, too.
The Sooners will need those contributions to continue against tougher competition in the Big 12.
“We’re in Big 12 play, so every win is critical,” Hield said. “Every game, we need to win, we have to win because you never know. You can’t get those games back. They might hurt you in the end because we’re trying to make a run to the (NCAA) tournament.”
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said he’s been impressed with Kruger’s formula, noting Fitzgerald and Clark each have more career starts than anyone in the Cowboys’ young lineup.
“When you’ve got guys that come off the bench with great experience and you’ve got freshmen playing as hard as they’re playing, that makes for a great year,” Ford said. “I think they’re a team that’s going to finish at the top of the Big 12 — I really believe that — and make the NCAA tournament. When you’ve got a makeup like they have right now, I’m sure they expect the same thing.”
Along with improving Oklahoma’s depth, Ford has seen the newcomers add to the team’s athleticism.
“They can really take you off the dribble and create their own shot and do a great job of it,” Ford said. “I don’t know if there’s a better one-on-one team in our league from all five spots.”
Blending it all together has come without too much friction for a Sooners squad trying to put consecutive losing seasons in the past.
“It wasn’t hard to bring the freshmen and the new guys into what we want to do, establishing a legacy and a culture that we’re going to go by,” Grooms said. “It’s not that hard when you have older guys that are just clicking and understanding that although the roles have changed for a lot of different people, it hasn’t changed as far as what we think mentally and how we approach the game.”
The Cowboys also will bring a flock of newcomers into Bedlam, with freshmen Marcus Smart and Kamari Murphy starting and Phil Forte coming off the bench. Junior college transfer Kirby Gardner, the backup point guard, will also experience the rivalry for the first time as OSU tries to break an eight-game losing streak in Norman.
“In some cases, if you win this game, you’re on everybody’s good list,” Grooms said. “If you lose this game, you’re on their bad list for a good amount of time until you play again — or until you beat Texas or someone like that. The game is huge.”