Oklahoma basketball: Are the pandemic Sooners really this good?

Feb 13, 2021; Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; Oklahoma Sooners guard Austin Reaves (12) shoots in the lane late in the second overtime against the West Virginia Mountaineers at WVU Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 13, 2021; Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; Oklahoma Sooners guard Austin Reaves (12) shoots in the lane late in the second overtime against the West Virginia Mountaineers at WVU Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports /

If you were just waking up from a long deep sleep and discovered Oklahoma basketball ranked among the top10 teams in the county, you would probably think you were still dreaming.

Top-10 national rankings are something that are much more common in Sooner football or gymnastics or softball, but not in men’s basketball.

The Sooner men are currently ranked ninth in the Associated Press poll and No. 10 in the latest Coaches Poll. This is the second time this season Oklahoma has occupied the No. 9 spot in the AP weekly rankings.

Picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 standings in the annual preseason poll of the conference coaches, Oklahoma’s rise to top-10 national attention is a relatively recent development. Until Jan. 2, the Sooners were hardly receiving votes in either national poll.

Oklahoma Sooners Basketball
Oklahoma Sooners Basketball /

Oklahoma Sooners Basketball

Our first hint that this Oklahoma team might have something special in them came just two days into the new year.

The Sooners almost blew an 18-point first-half lead but held on to defeat then-No. 9 West Virginia 75-71 in Jan. 2. Two days later, on the road at No. 2 Baylor, the Sooners suffered a 15-point defeat that dropped their season record to 6-3 and 2-2 in the conference, and next up was a trip to Kansas, where Oklahoma has not won in practically forever.

The day before the Kansas game, the Sooners learned that they would have to face the then No.6-ranked Jayhawks without Brady Manek, their second leading scorer and a four-year starter.

Lon Kruger’s guys lost for a 20th consecutive time at Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 9, but only by four points and the game was still in doubt into the final minute. Despite the loss, something very positive and extremely telling came out of that game. The Sooners realized they had the depth, talent and heart to play with anybody, anywhere and anytime.

First Kansas game unexpectedly has defined Sooners’ season

Regardless of what happens the remainder of the season, OU basketball fans will be able to look back on that first Kansas game in early January as the game that dramatically and definitively turned around the Sooners’ season.

Two weekends after the first Kansas game, the Sooners and Jayhawks met for the second time, this time at Lloyd Noble Center in Norman. The outcome of this game was much different, with Oklahoma leading most of the way and posting a 75-68 win, the first of what would be three consecutive victories over teams ranked in the top 10.

Over the span of five weeks, from late December through the first week in February, the Sooners played an almost unprecedented eight games against top-10 teams and managed to come out on top in four of them.

Oklahoma added a fifth win over a ranked opponent with a double-overtime decision over No. 14 West Virginia this past weekend, and they have the opportunity to knock off another top-15 team when the Sooners host No. 12 Texas on Wednesday.

The Sooners didn’t get their first taste of the top 25 this season until moving into the No. 24 spot in the AP poll after the home win over Kansas. Over the next seven days, they added wins over No. 6 Texas and No. 9 Alabama, and that astonishingly skyrocketed them all the way into the AP Top 10.

The last time an Oklahoma basketball team was ranked as high as the top 10 was in mid-January 2018, when the Trae Young-led Sooners were No. 4 in the country.

Oklahoma basketball history has featured players and Sooner teams that have played on college basketball’s biggest stage. In the last two decades alone, Oklahoma has been to two Final Fours as well as a pair of Elite Eight appearances. All of those teams featured superstars — Hollis Price in 2001-02, Blake Griffin in 2008-09 and Buddy Hield, 2015-16. Griffin and Hield were both consensus national players of the year.

The big difference, however, in those highly successful Oklahoma teams of the recent past and the current edition of Sooner basketball is the absence of a true superstar.

No one on the current Oklahoma roster is going to achieve All-America status or probably First-Team All Big 12 (although senior point guard Austin Reaves is a good bet as a second-team selection), but this roster may be deeper and as talented as any of Lon Kruger’s teams in 10 seasons at Oklahoma.

And most important, this Sooner team plays selflessly, and extremely well together.

As with any Kruger team, they play solid defense and do not beat themselves with careless fouls and poor ball security. The Sooners are an efficient but not great shooting team, but they make up for what they lack on the offensive end by being the best free throw-shooting team in the Big 12 and leading the conference in committing the fewest fouls and the fewest turnovers per game.

When Oklahoma does shoot the ball well, however, the Sooners are very difficult to beat. They are 26-1 over the past two seasons when they shoot a higher percentage than their opponent.

The understated and perhaps underappreciated success factor in this year’s Oklahoma team is Kruger’s mastery at assembling and developing players who are willing to work hard, play tough, trust in each other and their coaches and recognize that wins are earned, not given, especially in a conference as highly competitive as the Big 12.

This year’s team is a blend of a core nucleus of three starters from a year ago (Manek, Reaves and De’Vion Harmon) and several transfers with a couple of years of game experience, who have played major support roles, both as starters and contributors coming of the bench and providing valuable minutes.

In the Sooners past four games Umoja Gibson, who transferred from North Texas, and Elijah Harkless have averaged 16 and 13 points, respectively. In all, four Sooner players are averaging at least 10 points a game and eight average nearly 20 minutes and at least five points a contest.

This Oklahoma team appears to be in it for the long haul. And a number of college basketball pundits and number crunchers are jumping on the Sooner bandwagon. Over the weekend, the NCAA Tournament selection committee revealed its mock projections for this year’s top 16 teams. The selection committee has the Sooners on the No. 3 line currently and one of five Big 12 teams as a projected top-four seed.

On Tuesday, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi also moved Oklahoma up, from a No. 5 seed to a No. 3 seed.

Oklahoma is riding a big wave of momentum that has produced seven wins in the last eight games and four wins over teams ranked in the top 15.

With six games remaining in the regular season, the Sooners are assured of a winning season, but I can assure you they have their sights set much higher than that.