Can Sooners avoid late-season maladies and make a sustained NCAA Tournament run?

Can Sooners avoid late-season maladies and make a sustained NCAA Tournament run?
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger discusses Friday's game against Cal State Bakersfield

Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger discusses Friday’s game against Cal State Bakersfield.

Oklahoma’s finish to the college basketball season — the Sooners were 6-5 in their last 11 games — is cause for concern for OU fans.

Going into Friday’s first-round NCAA Tournament game against Cal State Bakersfield, it’s cause for concern for the coaching staff, too.

“Oh, we always have to do better,” coach Lon Kruger said this week in an interview on The Franchise Tulsa. “Actually, we’ve played pretty good basketball in those last 5-6 games. We had a couple of stretches that weren’t good, and those are the things that get our attention as well as the fans, understandably.”

The No. 2-seed Sooners (25-7) play 15-seed Bakersfield (24-8) at approximately 3:10 p.m. in Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Arena. No one is overly concerned about a first-round upset (2-seeds are 117-4 all-time in first-round games), but given the way the once-No. 1-ranked Sooners leveled out over the final one-third of the season — that’s starting with the Kansas State loss — the question must be asked: is OU equipped for a deep tournament run?

For example:

  • The Sooners shot 47.7 percent from the floor during the first 21 games, but only 41.8 percent over the last 11.
  • OU shot 45.4 percent from 3-point range during the first 21 games, but only 36.2 percent over the last 11.
  • Even the free throw percentage dropped, from .759 over the first 21 games to .668 over the last 11.

Whether it’s fatigue from having to extend starters’ minutes due to lack of bench productivity or the heart of a demanding Big 12 schedule taking its toll or just the Sooners not hitting that magic level, additional statistics bear out an alarming trend:

  • The Sooners’ assist-to-turnover ratio over the first 21 games was plus-1.26. Over the last 11 games, that number plunged to minus-1.16.
  • Over the first 21 games, OU averaged 16.6 fouls per game. Over the final 11, the fouls climbed to 17.2.
  • Oklahoma averaged 7.5 steals per game over the first 21 games, but only 5.8 over the last 11 games.

“From a coaching standpoint, you notice those things during those stretches where you’ve got to take care of the ball better and execute better, rebound better, whatever the case might be,” Kruger said. “And certainly we’ve got areas we’ve got to get better in, or if you don’t and you take that one bad stretch in tournament play, then we’re knocked out and you don’t get that opportunity.”

Cal State Bakersfield is a significant underdog, but they’ve seen the film. It’s apparent to them, too, how the Sooners have struggled at times down the stretch.

“I think they’re a good team, but they are not great. They are beatable,” forward Aly Ahmed said Friday of the Sooners. “… I think if we play pretty good defense tomorrow, we’ll have a big chance.”

OU center Khadeem Lattin was asked about Ahmed’s assessment.

“That’s unfortunate,” Lattin said. “That’s all I got.”

OU forward Ryan Spangler had a dispassionate reply on Ahmed’s commentary.

“We beat a lot of teams this year, and I think we’ve proven ourselves,” Spangler said. “Now it’s another season for us to prove ourselves again.

“Just got to play the way we played.”

As long as it’s not the way they’ve played lately.


Hoover wrote for the Tulsa World for 24 years before joining The Franchise, where he's now co-host of "Further Review" on The Franchise Tulsa (weekdays 12-3, fm107.9/am1270) . In his time at the World, Hoover won numerous writing and reporting awards, including in 2011 National Beat Writer of the Year from the Associated Press Sports Editors for his work covering the Oklahoma Sooners. Hoover also covered Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Oral Roberts and the NFL as a beat writer. From 2012 to 2016, Hoover was the World's lead sports columnist. As a columnist, Hoover won national awards in 2012 and 2014 from the National Athletic Trainers Association for reporting on sports medicine and in 2015 won first place in sports columns from the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists. After receiving a journalism degree from East Central University, Hoover worked at newspapers in Ada, Okmulgee, Tahlequah and Waynesville, Mo. He played football at Ada High School and grew up in North Pole, Alaska. Hoover and his family live in Broken Arrow.

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