COLUMN: Men's basketball begins long road back to the big dance.
After starting last season with a 10-2 record, the OU men’s basketball team went 5-13 during conference play to end the year at .500.
In 2013, the Sooners have flipped the script — kicking off this season’s conference schedule with back-to-back wins after losing their first three conference games a year ago.
So what’s the difference between now and then?
Well, first off, the Sooners have played West Virginia and Oklahoma State, as opposed to last year, when they played Missouri and Kansas — which finished the season ranked No. 5 and No. 3, respectively.
Not to say that the Mountaineers and Cowboys are pushovers — West Virginia beat Texas in Austin and took No. 16 Kansas State down to the wire before losing, 65-64, and OSU beat then-No. 6 North Carolina State earlier this season — but don’t expect them to be in the top-five at season’s end.
A more manageable schedule isn’t the only thing responsible for the Sooners’ leap forward, though.
OU has more athleticism, more depth and, simply put, more talent than last year’s team.
The strength of this Sooners squad is its athletic frontcourt, which is made up of junior forward Amath M’Baye and senior forward Romero Osby.
M’Baye and Osby have emerged as versatile swing men — averaging a combined 23.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game — and lead a team that likes to get out and run in transition.
Last season’s leading scorer, senior guard Steven Pledger, has had his role on offense relegated to that of a jump shooter because of the influx of new talent, especially at the guard position. Despite freshman guard Buddy Hield proving to be OU’s most dynamic scorer, Pledger, the two-guard from Chesapeake, Va. still leads the team in minutes and is second on the team in scoring with 11.5 points per game.
Hield, who was a four-star recruit and the 17th-ranked guard in the nation in 2012 by Rivals.com, leads an electric class of freshmen guards with 8.9 points per game, including a season-high 17-point outing against Texas-Arlington on Nov. 16.
The other two frosh guards — four-star Je’lon Hornbeak and three-star Isaiah Cousins — both have received significant playing time, as well. Hornbeak averages 6.2 points, 1.9 assists and 22.9 minutes per game, and Cousins averages 2.7 points, 1.6 assists and 17.7 minutes.
The Sooners also boast a solid supporting cast led by two starters from last season, senior forward Andrew Fitzgerald and junior guard Cameron Clark, both of whom have contributed valuable minutes and veteran leadership off the bench.
Take all that into consideration, and the Sooners appear to be poised to contend for the field of 64.
In order to make its first tournament since 2009, OU will have to navigate a tough conference schedule highlighted by road trips to No. 16 Kansas State on Saturday and No. 4 Kansas next weekend.
There’s no question OU is much improved from last season, when it took the Sooners five games to get to two conference wins, but is OU good enough to return to the big dance?
I think so.
Dillon Phillips is a journalism junior and sports editor.
You can follow him on Twitter at @DillonPhillips_