Oklahoma basketball: Sooners a week away from tipping off 2018-19 season

AMES, IA - FEBRUARY 10: Christian James
AMES, IA - FEBRUARY 10: Christian James /

Let’s get right to the point: The optimism and outlook for men’s Oklahoma basketball is much different than it was at this time a year ago.

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Oklahoma not only lost consensus All-American Trae Young off of last season’s 18-14 team, but also two other players — Kameron McGusty and Jordan Shepherd — who were being counted on to be key contributors for head coach Lon Kruger and the Sooners in their junior season.

Young’s departure, as the No. 5 overall selection in this year’s NBA Draft, was expected, but the moves by McGusty and Shepherd were not. McGusty’s production dropped off a bit last season, but as a freshman, in 2016-17, he was the team’s second leading scorer, averaging 10.4 points a game. Shepherd was in line to take over the starting point guard duties this season following Young’s move to the NBA.

Kruger has brought in some graduate transfer and transfer additions to help plug some of the gaps and fill out the roster for the coming season, but to be perfectly candid, the Sooners’ lack the talent and depth and are without clear difference makers on this year’s squad.

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What just a couple of years ago was one of the youngest teams in the Big 12 has suddenly become the oldest. The Sooners have eight seniors or graduate transfers on their roster this season.  According to the OU athletic department, the average age of the Oklahoma roster is 21.1.

If Kruger goes with the starting five from the exhibition game on Thursday with Pittsburg State (Kansas) in the season opener with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley next Friday, it will be newcomer Aaron Calixte at point guard, senior Christian James and junior Kristian Doolittle on the wings and senior Jamuni McNeace and sophomore Brady Manek in the front court.

Senior guard Rashard Odomes will likely be the first one off the bench for the Sooners, although Kruger said this week that the 6-foot, 6 inch guard, who has started 55 games for Oklahoma, “could be in the starting lineup at times.”

Calixte and Miles Reynolds have joined the Sooners as graduate transfers. Calixte led the Maine Black Bears in scoring last season, averaging 16.9 points and 3.2 assists per game. Reynolds, also a guard, comes to OU from Pacific University in Oregon, where he averaged 13.3 points and 2.8 assists a year ago.

Also new to the Sooners this season are junio-college transfer Kur Kuatha and top freshman recruit Jamal Bieniemy.

Kuath is a 6-foot, 10-inch big man who played the last two years at Salt Lake (Utah) Community College. While there, he averaged 10.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.3 blocked shots in 33 games his sophomore season.

James is the leading returning scorer for the 2018-19 edition of OU men’s basketball with an average of 11.9. He shot 46 percent from the field and 36 percent from three-point range. Manek averaged 10.2 points as a freshman last season.

Kruger, who is in his eighth season at Oklahoma, is a member an elite club of college head coaches with more than 600 wins (619 wins in 32 seasons, 140 at OU in seven seasons).  The 66-year-old head coach has taken five different teams to the NCAA Tournament, four to the Sweet 16 and two, including Oklahoma, to the Final Four, but it is going to take more than Kruger’s sterling resume and Sooner Magic to pull a winning conference season out of a hat in what again appears to be an elite basketball league in the Big 12.

The Big 12 has been the No. 1 conference in RPI (Real Percentage Index) in four of the last five years and appears as strong as ever again this season, which is not particularly good news heading into the 2018-19 season for fans of Sooner men’s basketball.

I may be pilloried for saying this, but a .500 season would seem to be a stretch goal for the Sooners in what appears to be a transition year. There are likely to be seven or more conference teams ahead of them when the dust finally settles on the 2018-19 campaign.