NORMAN — The Oklahoma men couldn't have played two different exhibitions if they tried. And after the charity scrimmage result against UT Arlington, they definitely tried.
Wednesday's 114-78 demolishing of East Central at Lloyd Noble Center seemed to breathe new life into the Sooners. Not only did it put the 99-84 home loss to UTA on Oct. 28 in the past, it seemed to confirm the Sooners' offensive potential ahead of their season opener against Omaha Sunday at Lloyd Noble Center.
Five scorers reached double-digits, Trae Young, Christian James, Khadeem Lattin, Jamuni McNeace and Kameron McGusty. Young led the Sooners with 23 points, on 8 of 14 shooting, and six assists versus just one turnover in 22 minutes.
On the other end, East Central lived behind the 3-point line, taking 32 of its 66 shots from deep, to avoid dealing with McNeace and Lattin inside. While OU had a closed scrimmage against Oregon in Las Vegas, on Nov. 4, coach Lon Kruger could see the difference between the first and last time OU performed in front of its home crowd.
“We made the most progress the week after UT Arlington,” Kruger said. “We didn't transfer much from practice to the game in that one. After Oregon we had just a couple of practices, but we did a good job there too.”
So what changed? Pretty much everything.
The free-throw shooting was bound to improve from its 24 for 43 mark against UTA. But the Sooners did better than expected, shooting 18 for 22.
“The game against UTA, we don't miss that many free throws,” Young said. “We work on that everyday. I think that was just one of those days. You're going to have those, but today, we came in and shot it well.”
The defensive intensity ratcheted up after a sluggish start. East Central drained a 3 on its first possession but didn't hit another until 12:57 remaining the first half. The Tigers' 9-5 early lead was erased by a flurry of easy layups from OU, and the Sooners didn't slow down.
The bench performance was impressive. Only two Sooners seemed capable of finding the basket against UTA, James and Young, but Wednesday, nearly everyone got involved. Kruger still essentially subbed five players at once, putting complete units together, but OU's second team did more than hold its ground.
The combination of McNeace, McGusty, guard Jordan Shepherd, guard Ty Lazenby and forward Matt Freeman outscored East Central 16-7 for 4:33 in the first half. They did it again after the break, beating East Central 11-6 over 5:25. That might not seem like big margins, but it highlights OU's depth, which has Kruger grinning as he mulls lineup options. He wishfully pondered out loud about playing a nine to 10-man rotation in the postgame news conference.
“Our depth is good,” Kruger said. “We really shared the ball, made a lot of good plays for each other, stepped up and made shots. The potential to [have five guys in double digits] is very realistic. These guys don't care so much about where the shot comes from but just making good plays.”
It was a good night, but there's plenty of possible detractors. East Central didn't list a player over 6-foot-7, allowing OU's big men, particularly the 6-foot-9 Lattin to thrive in the post. He had 15 points, 10 rebounds and three rebounds to McNeace's 13 points and eight rebounds. None of the Tigers could stay in front of Young, allowing him easy access to the paint to break down the defense.
Then, there's OU's three-point shooting defense, still a cause for concern. UTA shot 14 of 29 behind the arc, and East Central's 10 for 32 mark would have looked a lot better if it didn't miss 11 of its last 13 with the game in hand.
Those are things to fix for Sunday. It will be hard to top the improvement made over the preseason, but scoring 114 points and shooting 53.7 percent from field proved OU's offensive potential.