Oklahoma basketball: For Sooners, good just isn’t good enough

Jan 18, 2022; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Porter Moser yells to his team on a play against the Kansas Jayhawks during the second half at Lloyd Noble Center. Kansas won 67-64. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 18, 2022; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Porter Moser yells to his team on a play against the Kansas Jayhawks during the second half at Lloyd Noble Center. Kansas won 67-64. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports /

It wasn’t that Oklahoma basketball head coach Porter Moser didn’t realize what he was getting into leading a team in his new universe of Big 12 basketball.

The Sooner men opened the new season with their new coach in strong fashion, winning eight of their first 10 games, including victories over two top-15 teams, and they began Big 12 play with wins in two of their first three contests, including a big win over then No. 11 Iowa State.

With victories over three ranked teams, Moser became the first OU head coach to defeat three teams ranked in the top 15 of the Associated Press poll in his first 15 games and only the third coach in Sooner basketball history to beat three top-15 teams in the same season.

With a 12-2 overall record, all was going well for the new-look OU men’s team, until it wasn’t. Over the next seven games, during which time the Sooners would face three teams that have been ranked No. 1 in the country during this season, and one of those teams twice.

Through that treacherous seven-game gauntlet, Oklahoma came out on the winning end just once, although several of those games were close in the final minutes.

To put into perspective what has happened to so quickly turn a season that began with such promise and positive momentum into one that is in current free fall, you have go back to late March last year.

That’s when Lon Kruger retired, after 195 wins and a decade at OU and over three decades as a college head coach, and less than a week later Moser was hired as the next Oklahoma head coach. The Sooners’ 2020-21 season ended with a loss to top-seeded Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

In eight seasons as head coach at Cinderella Loyola-Chicago, before leaving to take the head job at OU, Moser’s teams posted four 20-win seasons and in 2017-18 the Ramblers won 32 games with just six losses and advanced to the NCAA Tournament Final Four. Little did anyone know or suspect at the time that as many as six of the nine Sooners who saw action in the loss to Gonzaga would not be with the team the next season.

The Sooner team Moser inherited last spring was a shell of what it was before Kruger announced his retirement. Moser arrived to lead a team with a roster decimated by an NBA departure, graduation and several transfers, including two major starters. There were just four scholarship players returning for 2021-22.

Moser and his newly assembled staff hit the ground running and immediately embarked on a full court-press effort to replenish the roster. It’s fairly remarkable, really, that in just a few weeks after he was hired, Moser was able to bring in seven players through the transfer portal who played prominent roles with their previous teams.

Brothers Tanner and Jacob Groves, for example, combined for 58 points for Eastern Washington, in a near upset of Kansas in the opening round of last year’s NCAA Tournament. Jordan Goldwire was a talented defensive specialist for Mike Krzyzewski’s team at Duke. Goldwire was an All-ACC Defensive Team selection last season.

Moser was able to blend the seven transfer newcomers with a pair of talent freshman recruits that Kruger had signed (C.J. Noland and Bijan Cortes) and four roster holdovers (Elija Harkless, Umoja Gibson, Jalen Hill and Rick Issanza).

Sometimes it takes a couple of seasons before a group of players are able to gain the experience and trust of playing together as a team. It has been truly remarkable how fast Moser and his assistants have blended the old with the new into a harmonious, productive unit.

Despite their recent woes, the Sooners are the Big 12’s second-best team in field-goal percentage (48.5), just behind Kansas, and ranked 15th nationally in that category. Statistically, this group and the 2020-21 OU team are that much different.

Last year’s team was a bit more productive on the offensive end and rebounded better than the current Sooner team, but Moser’s group plays better defensively. Turnovers have been a bigger problem this season than last, but perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising consider the limited time this year’s group has been together.

Yes, this is a relatively new OU team in terms of its limited time together, but despite that disparity, the Sooners are actually playing good basketball, and regardless of the rough road they’ve been on the last couple of weeks, it’s not like they’re being blown out.

Oklahoma has experienced some in-game scoring droughts recently that have put the team in a hole it hasn’t been able to climb out of. And when you compete in a conference as strong as the Big 12 is this season, you have to be on your game for a full 40 minutes. There literally are no gimme games anywhere in the Big 12. Five Big 12 teams have been ranked in the nation’s top 25 practically all season, and none of the 10 conference teams has a losing record overall.

It’s not so much that Oklahoma is playing bad basketball. The Sponers have shown that they can compete with some of the best teams in the country. It’s more a function of the conference they play in, the high quality of the teams in that conference and being overmatched more times than not.

Stay the course, Sooner fans. Oklahoma basketball is on the way back up with Porter Moser. He had to piece this team together, but he is a team-builder and given time and the resources, which he clearly has at OU, Sooner basketball will again gain national relevance and respect in the ever-changing world of college basketball.