Amidst all the heft in the Big 12, including perennial champion Kansas, it can be easy to lose track of Oklahoma. The Sooners don’t have a big name or personality for a coach, they’re thought of as a football school, and there are lots of other programs chasing Kansas in the Big 12 that are pretty good. If you haven’t been watching the Sooners to this point, though, you would do well to start paying attention.
Oklahoma has made two trips to Hawaii this season, and both times made the most of it. First, they convincingly beat Villanova in the Pearl Harbor Invitational, then they swept to the Diamond Head Classic title, completing the latter by riding a big second half to an 83-71 win over Harvard on Friday.
What Oklahoma has shown in running through non-conference play is that they are very much a force to be reckoned with. They have a signature win with the aforementioned one over Villanova, as well as many other good ones like the season opener at Memphis, plus home wins over Wisconsin, Oral Roberts and Creighton, then neutral site wins over Washington State, Hawaii, and now Harvard. They entered the week in the top 10 in RPI and should certainly be there as Big 12 play starts next week.
On Friday, the Sooners entered new territory on the season. They trailed at halftime for the first time all year, 37-35 to Harvard, a plucky underdog if there was one this season. This is a Harvard team that’s not as strong on paper as their recent Ivy League champions, especially with their best returning player missing the season due to injury, but they have a lot going for them. They already gave Kansas a run for their money earlier this season.
That was easy for the Sooners to handle, or at least they made it look that way. They scored the first 17 points of the second half as part of a 23-2 run and never looked back. Harvard had a 12-0 run just after that, and would later get within 70-65, but Oklahoma had it from there.
Lon Kruger is the Sooners’ understated yet excellent head coach. He has won plenty of games in his career, but likely isn’t going to be mentioned among any list of elite head coaches. That takes nothing away from the more than 570 college games he has won, or his NCAA Tournament success.
Where the coach isn’t a big name or personality, the Sooners have a star who is, or at least should be, a household name in Buddy Hield, and he certainly showed up on Friday. The senior from the Bahamas, who won Big 12 Player of the Year honors last season, is now in the top 10 all-time in program history in scoring, and after the three games in Honolulu he is breathing down the neck of Eduardo Najera in ninth place. Hield set a tournament record with 86 points in three games, including a career-high 34 in the title game on Friday night. That puts him six points behind Najera, and he’ll continue climbing that list.
Hield has scored at least 25 points in each of the last five games. He isn’t just putting up points with volume shooting, either; he’s posting career highs in field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage, the latter by a wide margin. On Friday, he was 11-14 from the field, including 3-5 from deep. On the season, he’s shooting 51.5 percent from the field and nearly 53 percent from deep. If the awards were given today, you’d have to have him on your All-American lineup and he would have to be a serious contender for national Player of the Year.
The Sooners have more than that going for them, though. They also have continuity, which is hard to come by in college basketball nowadays and especially in the Power 5. The foursome of Hield, classmates Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler and junior Jordan Woodard (who had a career-high of his own with 28 points on 9-13 shooting on Friday) have started all 79 games the past two-plus seasons, combining for over 300 career starts. This is a group that has grown together over time and is very familiar with each other, and that experience is paying dividends right now. The Sooners conclude non-conference play averaging 87 points per game, shooting 48.7 percent from the field including over 46 percent from deep, and holding opponents below 36 percent shooting.
Oklahoma begins Big 12 play in a week with a bang, and we’ll get an idea right away as to where they stand since they host Iowa State and then travel to Kansas. We’ll see if this team can do more than just contend in the conference. Based on what they have shown thus far, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they came away from those games 1-1, or even 2-0. Maybe then, more people will pay attention who aren’t already.
Three other games in the Diamond Head Classic took place on Friday. Hawaii took third place by knocking off Auburn 79-67 thanks to a big second half and Roderick Bobbitt’s 30 points. Brigham Young took fifth place with an 84-76 win over Northern Iowa, leading by as many as 15 points along the way. Washington State salvaged seventh place by trouncing New Mexico 82-59, running away with the game in the second half.
Just one game is on tap as many teams don’t like traveling on Christmas day, but it’s the big game: at noon, Louisville travels to Rupp Arena to play Kentucky.