By Murray Evans, AP Sports Writer
NORMAN, Okla. —
After a year of practicing only against his teammates, Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler looks forward to a change.
“You don’t understand how ready I am,” Spangler said. “There’s only so much practice you can take, playing the same people. I just want to get out there and play other people.”
An NCAA rule that allows college basketball teams to travel outside the U.S. to face foreign competition once every four years will allow Spangler and his teammates that opportunity a little earlier than usual. The Sooners plan to leave today for a 10-day trip to Belgium and France, during which they’ll play five games against European professional and club teams.
OU will play three games in Ghent, Belgium, from Thursday through Saturday, before traveling to France, where they’ll play games on Aug. 14-15 in Paris and Normandy. The Sooners held 10 practices to prepare for the trip, sessions that coach Lon Kruger said will give his team an edge.
“It’s kind of a jump-start to the season,” he said. “We’ll come back from the trip and then maybe take more days off than we normally would, in an effort to stay fresh for the long haul, but 10 days of practice help a lot.”
If ever there was a season before which Oklahoma could use a few extra practices, the upcoming campaign might be it for the Sooners.
Oklahoma is coming off a 20-12 season that included an NCAA tournament appearance — its first since the Blake Griffin era — and appears to be moving in the right direction under Kruger, a veteran coach entering his third season with the program.
But of the 10 Sooners who saw action in a 70-55 loss to San Diego State in the NCAA tournament in March, only five remain on the roster, including just one starter, sophomore guard Je’lon Hornbeak.
“It’s good to get this team practicing, early in the summer, especially for the new people coming in,” Hornbeak said. “The people who redshirted last year really didn’t get a chance to go through the offensive sequences as well as the defensive schemes, so it’s good to get everybody up to speed.”
Among the new faces is the 6-foot-8 Spangler, a former prep star at nearby Bridge Creek High School who signed with Gonzaga, but transferred after one season to OU and sat out the 2012-13 campaign due to NCAA rules.
This season, Spangler and another 6-foot-8 redshirt, D.J. Bennett, will be counted on to help fill major holes left in the Sooners’ front line by the departures of Romero Osby and Amath M’Baye. Osby was a second-round draft pick by the NBA’s Orlando Magic while M’Baye recently said on Twitter he will play professionally in Japan. M’Baye chose to turn pro after his junior season.
“These practices will help us in the long run because of how young we are,” Spangler said. “I wouldn’t say inexperienced, but a lot of guys haven’t logged a lot of minutes, so I think this is going to do nothing but help us. I would for sure rather D.J. and I get our nerves out in France and Belgium instead of waiting until the first game next (season).”
Four other Oklahoma players saw NCAA tournament action last season — Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Tyler Neal and Cameron Clark. Hield’s right foot is in a cast and he won’t play during the trip, but Kruger said the other 10 players in the traveling party will have an opportunity to see “plenty of minutes.”
“We need to see about leadership,” Kruger said. “We leaned so hard on Ro Osby from last year. We’ve got some candidates to emerge as leaders and I think that will happen during this trip.”
The foreign tour will be the third for the Sooners, who traveled to San Jose, Costa Rica, in 2003 under then-coach Kelvin Sampson, and to Vancouver in 2007 under then-coach Jeff Capel. The Sooners didn’t lose a game on either trip.
Just as important as the basketball, Kruger said, is the cultural aspect of such a trip. The Sooners will have several sightseeing opportunities in Belgium and France, including the trips to Paris and Normandy, site of the famous D-Day invasion in June 1944 during World War II.
“It gives a different perspective to the players,” Kruger said. “They’ve maybe read about it in books or had some family members who have told them stories, but still, this will be an eye-opening experience for them.”
Hornbeak said the opportunity to go on the European trip will help the Sooners be further along than most teams when they start the season in November.
“It gives us enough time to build a little team chemistry,” Hornbeak said. “We see four-year guys at different schools, some of the Cinderella teams, they’ve all been together for a long time and you can see that team chemistry really plays a big part.’’
Just to be able to get together, especially with a lot of new guys coming in this year, and start building that chemistry early, will help us when we start practice in September.”