#33 Oklahoma Preview 2017-18

- Ky McKeon

Key Returners: Kameron McGusty, Rashard Odomes, Kristian Doolittle, Christian James, Khadeem Lattin
Key Losses: Jordan Woodard
Key Newcomers: Trae Young, Ty Lazenby (JUCO), Brady Manek, Hannes Polla

Lineup:

Postseason Projection: 7 - 10 seed

Outlook: If you’re a Sooner fan, you should be as giddy as I am about your team’s upcoming college basketball campaign. Sure, Oklahoma was 11-20 (5-13) last season, but that record is severely misleading. Per KenPom.com, the Sooners were the 65th ranked team in the country in 2016-17 even with the eyesore record (thanks to an abysmal 344th luck rating), and finished 39th in defensive efficiency. This was achieved despite undisputed leader, and now-departed point guard, Jordan Woodard missing a third of the year. OU was one of the youngest teams in the nation last season, playing mostly sophomores and freshmen, and now they should reap the benefits of the seeds they sowed with seven of their top eight scorers returning to the fold. To top it off, OU adds the 23rd ranked recruiting class in the country this year, and brings back Head Coach Lon Kruger, who has led the Sooners to four NCAA Tournaments in six seasons.

The Sooners struggled last season to replace the immense production left behind by OU legend Buddy Hield. Woodard was supposed to be the answer to the scoring question, but injuries and poor shot selection quickly derailed that notion. One of the factors that makes OU so enticing this year, is they have three or four guys capable of making that giant leap into “go-to scorer / playmaker”. Guard Kameron McGusty has the highest potential to breakout amongst the returners. He’s the lead returning scorer from last year and he upped his scoring average a couple points in games when Woodard was on the sidelines. However, McGusty's game wasn't without inefficiencies, as the Sooners actually scored more points per possession when the guard sat versus when he was on the floor. Despite the advanced lineup metric, McGusty’s offensive versatility makes him a good bet to become the Sooners’ #1 option; he led OU in three-point attempts last year (made 35.2%), but also showed a keen ability to score off the dribble and finish in transition.

Returning juniors Rashard Odomes and Christian James, and sophomore Kristian Doolittle also hold breakout potential. Odomes is an athletic wing with a three-point allergy (he shot only 9 threes last season), and contributes consistently on both ends of the floor. He also ranked 2nd in the Big 12 in free throw rate (aka getting to the line) last year and represents the Sooners' best transition scoring threat. James struggled last season with turnovers and shooting, but he still may be OU’s best three-point bomber; an extra year in Kruger’s system could do his game wonders. Doolittle was a revelation on the glass in his inaugural season, ripping down boards at a top-ten Big 12 rate. His shot selection needs to improve (shot 32% on two-point jumpers, which accounted for 100 of his 220 shot attempts), but solid three-point (39.5%) and free-throw (81.1%) percentages suggest he can fill it up with the right approach.    

The inside will once again be manned by Khadeem Lattin, one of the fiercest shot blockers in the country. Lattin is a defensive specialist and great rebounder, and finishes well on the offensive end. One of the most infamous moments of Lattin’s career was his missed free throw against Kansas back in January 2016. Take a look at the 1:50 mark as Lattin gets fouled and proceeds to scream “I got this” before bricking a game-winning foul shot. To Lattin’s credit, it’s clear he made a conscious effort on improving his free throw shooting last season – he improved his percentage from 52.4% as a frosh and 54.5% as a sophomore to 72% in his junior campaign. Well done, Khadeem.

 Frank Mason starts to cry a little bit as he thinks about his shot's impending doom.

Frank Mason starts to cry a little bit as he thinks about his shot's impending doom.

Of course the biggest threat to break out and lead the Sooners to the Promised Land this season is incoming freshman point guard Trae Young, the #4 recruit in the country. Young is a super-skilled ball handler with A+ court vision. His greatest strength is his outside shot, which he somehow has very little difficulty getting off thanks to his footwork and quick release. Young is good enough to lead this team in scoring and etch his name on an All-Conference roster, but he’ll need to prove he has the strength and defensive ability to keep up with the Big 12 elite guards.

Kruger’s team is deep. Along with the six guys I’ve discussed, Kruger has another three or four bodies he can feel comfortable about putting in the game. Returners Jamuni McNeace and Jordan Shepherd fill perfect backup roles off the pine at the two book-end positions (C and PG). McNeace is nearly every bit the shot blocker Lattin is, and has proven he can score inside with relative consistency. Shepherd represents a steady ball handler off the bench with three-point shooting ability. Neither guy will be a star on this roster, but both will fill crucial spots. Sophomore big Matt Freeman will also see a bit of time next to McNeace. The other newcomers include JUCO All-American Ty Lazenby, and two 4-star forwards in Brady Manek and Hannes Polla. It’s unlikely all of these guys suit up for the Sooners in 2017-18, as redshirting would be a smarter option than burning a year of eligibility on the bench. Lazenby averaged 22ppg at his JUCO last season and would serve as a sharpshooter off the pine, something OU’s team sorely missed last year. Manek is a skinny stretch four, while Polla is a Finnish mountain at 6’11” 265 lbs.   

Outlook:
I’m extremely high on this Oklahoma team, higher even than another Big 12 team on this top 40 list that you’ll read about shortly (such is the nature of consensus rankings). A top three conference finish would not shock me, nor would a top 6 or 7 seed come March. My bullishness is rooted heavily in Lon Kruger, a coach that has a track record of developing talent. Assuming Trae Young stays at least until his sophomore year, OU could have a nice little stretch of basketball over the next couple seasons.