Oklahoma basketball: Sooners’ one of college basketball’s biggest surprises in early going

Oklahoma guard Javian McCollum (2) works past Arkansas guard Layden Blocker (6) in the second half during an NCAA basketball game between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Arkansas Razorbacks at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023.
Oklahoma guard Javian McCollum (2) works past Arkansas guard Layden Blocker (6) in the second half during an NCAA basketball game between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Arkansas Razorbacks at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023. /

There were a lot of unknowns about the men’s Oklahoma basketball team prior to the start of the 2023-24 season, and rightfully so.

For the third straight year head coach Porter Moser has been forced to deal with serious attrition by bringing in a number of transfers to rebuild the roster. It is always a crap shoot when you have so many new players who have never played together before.

For that reason, the prospects for the Sooner men coming into this season weren’t that high. Most college basketball experts had Oklahoma missing the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season.

In early October, the Big 12 men’s basketball coaches offered a preseason assessment of what the conference standings could look like by season’s end.

The annual Preseason Big 12 Men’s Basketball poll is a collective vote of the league coaches who individually rank the projected order of finish of every team in the conference, which this season has grown from 10 to 14 teams.

The aggregate vote showed reigning national champion and Big 12 champion Kansas as the favorite to capture what would be the Jayhawks’ 22nd conference title in the 28-year history of the Big 12. Kansas received 12 of the 14 first-place votes with league newcomer Houston garnering the other two first-place votes. Texas and Baylor rounded out the top four teams with an appreciable drop off in the total points after that.

A little over a month into the 2023-24 college basketball season, the coaches’ prescient view of the top teams in the conference appears to be spot on. So much so that three of the top four teams in the preseason Big 12 poll (Kansas, Houston and Baylor) are ranked in the top 10 in both of the major weekly national rankings, and the fourth, Texas, is right there knocking on the door at No. 12 in the Associated Press Top 25.

But the Big 12 fraternity of coaches is probably as surprised as everyone else in college basketball — everyone that is except for perhaps OU’s Moser — at its preseason assessment of two teams the group had plugged in at the tail end of the conference standings. Oklahoma was projected to finish 12th in the conference standing. Only BYU and UCF, two of the conference newcomers, were ranked lower than the Sooners.

Well, here are, beginning Week 6 of the 2023-24 — admittedly still very early on the so-called road to the Final Four — and Oklahoma sits 9-0 and one of eight teams that remain unbeaten in college basketball. The Sooners are ranked No. 11 in the Associated Press Top 25 and 12 in this week’s Coaches Poll.

Among Oklahoma’s nine wins to begin the season are wins over Iowa, USC, Providence and this past weekend Arkansas. The Sooners will face their biggest test of the nonconference season when they travel to Charlotte, North Carolina, for a game with the 9th-ranked Tar Heels on Dec. 20 in the Jumpman Invitational.

The No. 11 AP ranking this week is the highest Oklahoma has been ranked since a No. 9 ranking in 2021 after a three-game sequence of wins over No. 9 Kansas, No. 5 Texas and No. 9 Alabama. The Sooners actually rose as high as No. 7 that season before falling all the way back to No. 25 after losing six of their final eight games.

This year’s Oklahoma squad obviously is playing well together, averaging 17 more points a game than last year’s 15-17 team while holding opponents to just 62 points a game a 22-point scoring margin. Three of the team’s top five scorers are newcomers. Siena Transfer Javian McCollum is averaging 14.9 points a game, shoots 47 percent from the field and is a 90 percent free-throw shooter. John Hugely IV, a transfer from Pittsburgh, averages 10.8 and Jalon Moore averages 8.3.

Moser has brought in good players from the transfer portal with his two previous Oklahoma teams, but this year’s group is shaping up as the best yet. Five of this six transfer newcomers have made an immediate impact. Their individual and collective performance thus far prompted one sportswriter to describe the OU newcomers this way:

“They are longer, faster, more athletic and seem to blend a lot better than in year’s past.”

The 9-0 start is the best by an Oklahoma men’s team since the Buddy Hield-led Sooner team in 2015-16 that started the season with 12 consecutive wins and finished the year 29-8 and advanced to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament.

Through nine games, the Sooners rank 6th in the Big 12 in scoring offense (84.8), 4th in scoring defense (62.9), 4th in field goal percentage offense (50.9) and defense (38.3), 6th in three-point percentage (35.3), 2nd in opponents’ three-point percentage (25.7), 1st in free-throw percentage (79.0), and 5th in rebounding margin (+9.3).

Doesn’t sound much like a 12th-place team, does it?

There is still a very long way to go this season, but what we have seen so far from this Oklahoma team gives every appearance of a group that isn’t going to be pushed around or intimidated by any team and is much better than its 14th-place preseason projection.