Three voids exist on this season’s Oklahoma team. Two are obvious, one not as much.
The most apparent void is the absence of three starters from last season’s Final Four team. Player of the year Buddy Hield, fellow guard Isaiah Cousins and forward Ryan Spangler played together for over 100 games. And in their absence, the Sooners are missing a combined 38 points and 19 rebounds per game.
That threesome’s departure also left a leadership hole. Hield in particular was the power supply for the Oklahoma’s energy, on and off the court. Sooners coach Lon Kruger believes the work ethic established by Hield, Cousins and Spangler will carry over.
“The torch has definitely been passed in terms of work ethic,” Kruger said. “The impact that those three had on the program will last for a long time. The guys on this year’s team saw what resulted from that approach. There’s a standard those guys set.”
It will be up to returning starters Jordan Woodard and Khadeem Lattin to fill the leadership void in games, practices and in the locker room.
Woodard, a senior guard, has started every game in his career. Last season, he moved from point guard to shooting guard to allow Cousins to run the team. This season, Woodard will move back to point guard after averaging 13 points per game and shooting 45.5 percnet from 3-point range in 2015-16.
Lattin, whose role last season revolved around defense and rebounding, will need to increase his offensive production. The 6-foot-9 junior averaged just 5.6 points and 4.2 shots per game last season.
While replacing a player of Hield’s talents is a near impossibility, Oklahoma has two perimeter players who have promising potential.
Christian James, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, was one of the Sooners’ most reliable reserves during the NCAA Tournament run. In a closed scrimmage with Oregon, a preseason top-five team, James scored 32 points.
James is also high on a teammate with whom he might compete for playing time. Kameron McGusty, a 6-foot-5 freshman, was a 4-star recruit rated by 247Sports.com as the nation’s 42nd-best player in the class of 2016.
“Oh Kam, he’s gonna be crazy,” James said. “He kind of reminds me of Jamal Crawford because he’s so shifty, he’s so fast. He’s going to be a great player.”
Kruger, who enters the season with 590 career victories, knows exactly what’s facing the Sooners.
“It’s a very experienced group,” he said. “The biggest challenge is getting these young guys to grow quickly. It’s not great to be young in any league, but Big 12 especially. But our guys understand that.”
Oklahoma at a glance
Coach: Lon Kruger.
Last season: 19-8 overall, 12-6 in Big 12, third.
NCAA Tournament: Lost in Final Four semifinal
Key departures: G Buddy Hield, G Isaiah Cousins, F Ryan Spangler, G Dinjiyl Walker.
Starters returning: 6-foot Sr. G Jordan Woodard, 6-foot-9 Jr. F Khadeem Lattin.
Top returnees: 6-foot-4 Soph. G Christian James, 6-foot-7 Soph. F Dante Buford, 6-foot-10 Soph. C Jamuni McNeace, 6-foot-6 Soph. G Rashard Odomes.
Newcomers: 6-foot-5 Fr. G Kameron McGusty, 6-foot-7 Fr. F Kristian Doolittle, 6-foot-10 Fr. F Matt Freeman.
Woodard is the only senior on the roster who figures to play significant minutes. If he can play at an all-Big 12 level, the Sooners can finish in the first division of the standings. James and McGusty will need to prove they can play major minutes and produce.
Lattin wants to improve his point production, but continuing to provide rebounding and shot blocking will still be important. Sophomores Buford and McNeace displayed spurts of solid play off the bench last season but will need to be more consistent. Newcomers Doolittle and Freeman figure to play as frontcourt reserves.
There are many question marks here. Some of the players who were top reserves (James and Buford) could wind up as starters. Finding a reliable point guard who can spell Woodard will be high on the list of priorities.
Woodard will be asked to carry a heavy load in terms of scoring and running the offense. Any point production from Lattin will be a bonus. Oklahoma has improved in the win column each season under Kruger; that’s not likely to continue but if the youngsters develop, the Sooners could return to the NCAA Tournament.