Oklahoma basketball: Sooner men are good(?) team in a great conference

Jan 24, 2023; Fort Worth, Texas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners bench reacts during the second half against the TCU Horned Frogs at Ed and Rae Schollmaier Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 24, 2023; Fort Worth, Texas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners bench reacts during the second half against the TCU Horned Frogs at Ed and Rae Schollmaier Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

The Oklahoma basketball men are bailing water right now, and the water is winning.

The Sooners are mired in a three-game losing streak and the 27-point blowout loss to TCU on Tuesday night was Oklahoma’s worst in nearly four years. From the opening tip at TCU, OU showed little life or will to win. And that was reflected in a 17-point halftime deficit that grew to as many as 32 points in the second half.

One explanation for OU’s half-hearted performance against TCU might be the mounting effects of playing so many close games, only to come up on the short end seemingly every time. It could just be that the Sooners are beaten down with the frustration that results from repeated failure. It plays with your nerves and mental makeup and definitely has you second-guessing and doubting your every move.

Another explanation — and perhaps the more overarching of the two — is that this Sooner squad is only marginally good and not nearly as good as think they might be, and certainly not as good as OU fans want or expect them to be.

It’s no secret that football rules at Oklahoma. That’s the way it is and always has been. Yet, the Sooners have tasted and produced success at the highest levels in both men’s and women’s basketball. But since the OU basketball heydays of the ’80s, ’90s and into the early 2000s, any success has been periodic at best.

Sooner basketball has seen the national limelight

Billy Tubbs coached for 14 seasons at Oklahoma from 1980 to 1994 and won 333 games the most in program history. In those 14 seasons, the Sooners made nine NCAA Tournament appearances and advanced to the Final Four in 1987-88. Kelvin Sampson followed Tubbs and won 280 games in 12 seasons, the second most in OU men’s basketball history. Sampson also took Oklahoma to the Final Four (2001-02) and took 11 of his Sooner teams to the NCAA Tournament.

Lon Kruger also had some success as a head coach at Oklahoma. Kruger had seven NCAA Tournament teams while at OU (his 2019-20 team also would have gone to the tournament, but it was cancelled because of the Covid pandemic). He also took a Sooner team to the Final Four (2015-16).

Porter Moser was named head coach of the Sooners following Kruger’s retirement in 2021. Moser also had taken a team, Loyola Chicago, to the Final Four (2017-18), but when he arrived in Norman the OU roster he inherited contained just four scholarship players. He brought in seven players from the transfer portal to fill out the roster, but only one, Tanner Groves, became a starter.

Two starters from Moser’s first season at Oklahoma entered the transfer portal, so he turned to the portal again to bring in six more newcomers along with a couple of talented but still unproven freshman recruits to fill out the roster for the 2022-23 season.

The Sooners began this season with a one-point loss to unheralded Sam Houston State, a sign perhaps of things to come. OU then reeled off six wins in a row, including wins over Nebraska, Seton Hall and Ole Miss, on the way to the championship in the ESPN Events Invitational Tournament.

OU entered the Big 12 season with a respectable 9-3 record. The Sooners suffered a heartbreaking one-point home loss to archrival Texas to open the conference season. Iowa State came to town five days later and left with a three-point victory over OU.

Now, we should probably mention that both the Longhorns and Cyclones are two of six Big 12 teams currently ranked among the nation’s top-25 teams. Nevertheless, both games were on Oklahoma’s home court, where the Sooners have been tough to beat over the years.

Long story short: Oklahoma is 2-6 in the Big 12 as we get set to turn the calendar to February, and four of the six losses are by four points or less and all four to top-15 teams.

Good not good enough in college basketball’s toughest league

Therein lies the real problem as far as the state of affairs of the men’s Oklahoma basketball team this season. The brutal truth is the Sooners don’t have the talent to compete at the same level as all but a few of the current 10 teams that make up the Big 12.

As things stand now, unless something bizarre happens to alter the course of events over the second half of the season, the top six teams in the Big 12 have clearly separated themselves from the bottom four, which consists of OU, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas Tech. To further illustrate how strong and competitive the Big 12 is in basketball this season, Texas Tech, a team just a couple of years removed from playing for the national championship, is still winless in the conference with an 0-8 record, including a loss to the Sooners.

Oklahoma really doesn’t have a go-to player that is capable of taking over a game and coming through in the clutch. Grant Sherfield, a transplant from Nevada this season, is the team’s best scorer. He averages 16.4 points a game, but in his last two outings, he scored eight and five points on combined 5-for-21 shooting. That kind of inconsistency, especially in the final minutes when the game is close and on the line, is what has reared its ugly head too often for the Sooners this season.

With all the newcomers that OU has added the past couple of years, it’s hard to build a true team chemistry and togetherness on the court. That generally comes after more than one season together. Otherwise, what you have is a group of individuals playing hard and trying to do the best they can.

OU has been its own worst enemy

The Sooners are not a high-scoring offensive machine, and they play in a league that has plenty of offensive firepower and some pretty good defenses as well. Because OU doesn’t score a lot of points, every offensive possession becomes important. The fact that they don’t rebound well (last in the Big 12 in total rebounding and offensive rebounds) and they turn the ball over a dozen or more times a game further reduces their margin of error and opportunity to score.

What hurts the most if you’re a Sooner hoops fan, however, is that things are probably going to continue to get worse before they get better. Oklahoma reportedly has the most difficult remaining schedule of any team in the country, the direct result of being in the Big 12.

I think Moser is a good coach and a good coach for this team, but for Oklahoma to improve he is going to have to recruit and bring in more talented players. His two recruits in the 2022 class, Milos Uzan and Ortega Oweh look to have strong potential based on their performance this season, Uzan has already cracked the starting lineup. The Sooners’ 2023 commits, Kaden Cooper and Jacolb Cole, are both four-star prospects and ranked in the top 100 nationally by 247Sports.

In the coaching business you’re only as good as your record, and Moser is starting to get heat from the media as well as OU fans over the Sooners’ basketball performance. It won’t help his cause either among the Sooner fan base that his name is being bandied about as a candidate for the Notre Dame position after Mike Brey retires at the end of the season.

All Oklahoma can do for now is take it one game at a time and try to learn and get better from past games. The good news looking ahead to this weekend and the next game is it is at home at Lloyd Noble Center. The bad news: It is against the No. 2 in the country, the Alabama Crimson Tide.

That’s just the way it’s going to be this season.