Oklahoma basketball: Previewing the 2020-21 Sooner season

Move over Sooner football. One week from today, men’s Oklahoma basketball is scheduled to tip off the 2020-21 season.

Not that Oklahoma football will ever take a back seat to basketball, but the Sooners have enjoyed time in the spotlight on the hardwood.

The 2020-21 edition of Lon Kruger’s Sooners are picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Preseason Poll voted on by the league coaches. Recent history has shown that Kruger has a stellar record outperforming preseason projections, and last season was no exception.

The league coaches projected the 2019-20 Oklahoma team to finish eighth. Whether that served as extra motivation or not, the Sooners ended the COVID-shortened season with a 19-12 overall record and a 9-9 conference record, good enough for a No. 3 seed in the Big 12 Postseason Tournament, which was cancelled after the quarterfinal round because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Sooners won three of its final four games last season and going into the Big 12 Tournament they were projected as a 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which also was cancelled due to COVID.

This will be Kruger’s 10 season at Oklahoma, where he has compiled a record of 166-106. It will be his 35th season as a college head coach. He currently is the fifth winningest coach in Sooner men’s basketball history.

Oklahoma returns 64 percent of its scoring production from last season, led by seniors Austin Reeves and Brady Manek. Reeves averaged 14.7 points, 5.3 points and 3.0 assists a year ago, and Manek contributed 14.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per contest.

Because of the Sooners’ lack of size in the interior, Manek, at 6-foot, 9 inches, was forced into that role most of last season, but he is an excellent three-point-shooter, shooting 38 percent from long range and led the team in made three-point shots (71 of 187).

Reeves came on strong late last season, averaging 20.7 points a game in OU’s last five regular season games, including a 41-point performance in a come-from behind win at TCU in what turned out to be the season finale.

The Wichita State transfer hit 50 percent of his three-point attempts his freshman season with the Shockers and 42 percent as a sophomore. Last season, his first at OU after sitting out a season, Reeves shot just 25.9 percent from long range. A good number of his points last season came from drives to the basket, where he either scored a drew a foul. And that was generally good news for the Sooners because Reeves was their best free-throw shooter at nearly 85 percent.

Oklahoma basketball returns most of its core from last season

The Sooners lose their leading scorer from a year ago, Kristian Doolittle, to graduation and part-time starter at point guard, Jamal Bieniemy, transferred to the University of Texas-El Paso.

Back for his sophomore season is point guard De’Vion Harmon averaged 7.4 points in 30 minutes a game, and the Sooners are hoping for more production from him this season.

Junior-college transfer Alondes Williams is also back for another season after averaging 6.0 points a game a year ago.

OU added to its backcourt depth in the offseason, bringing in Umoja Gibson as a transfer from North Texas and 2020 recruit Trey Phipps, a shooting guard out of Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa.

Gibson scored 21 points against the Sooners last season in an 82-80 Oklahoma win. Phipps led his high school to the 6A State Championship last season, scoring 42 points in an 82-70 win over Oklahoma City’s Putnam City North High School.

Gibson was recently granted a waiver to play immediately without having to sit out a season. The Sooners also picked up another guard through the transfer portal. Elijah Harkless comes to OU from Cal State Northridge, where he led the Big West in steals and shot 36 percent from behind the three-point line. OU also submitted an eligibility waiver to the NCAA on Harkless, but have not heard back yet.

Sophomore forwards Victor Iwuakor and Jalen Hill are expected to see more action this season. Both averaged around 10 minutes and under three points a game.

Kruger wants to add more size on the front line, and he has a pair of big men who could help out immensely at the basket. Six-foot, 10-inch Kur Kuath was recovering from a back injury last season and played under 10 minutes a game. The senior center recorded five blocks each in OU’s late-season wins over Texas Tech and TCU. His block rate of 15.4 percent would have ranked second in the country.

Freshman Rick Issanza redshirted last season. Issanza, who is a native of the Congo, is more of a long-term project, but his presence on the court spelling Kuath will give the Sooners much needed size in the front court and help with offensive rebounding, where OU was hurt badly last year because of a height and size disadvantage.

The Sooner men will open at home at Lloyd Noble Center next Wednesday (Nov. 25) facing the University of Texas-San Antonio, coached by former OU assistant Steven Henson. Three days later, on Nov. 28, they will travel to Orlando to play Central Florida, a team that came within two points of defeating the Sooners in Norman last season.

In early December, Oklahoma has out-of-conference games with Florida and Xavier, in Norman and Cincinnati, Ohio, respectively, and opens Big 12 play against TCU in Ft. Worth, Texas, on Dec. 6.