CNHI News Services
The declaration Oklahoma has made since practice began was that it can “comfortably” play up to 10 players. The depth is a major reason coach Lon Kruger has made reaching the NCAA Tournament a goal this season.
The depth was pivotal in OU’s 63-59 victory over Texas-Arlington last Friday. It will be again as OU heads to Orlando, Fla., for three games in four days in the Old Spice Classic.
“It’s something we look at as an advantage for us,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “We have a lot confidence in playing a lot of people and a bench that can come in and pick up those guys who are starting. We can also keep people fresh over four days.”
The Sooners (2-0) open play at 6 tonight at the HP Field House against UTEP (1-1). Kruger hasn’t altered his starting lineup. He’s sticking with forwards Amath M’Baye and Romero Osby and guards Steven Pledger, Je’lon Hornbeak and Isaiah Cousins.
Backup guards Sam Grooms, Buddy Hield and Cameron Clark and forwards Andrew Fitzgerald and Tyler Neal are all averaging more than 15 minutes a game, too.
“It was very helpful,” Kruger said. “We got off to a very slow start at UTA and the bench gave us a huge lift. Buddy came in the first half and scored in a lot of different ways, and I thought Cam came in and was physical and aggressive. Those things were a big boost. You don’t have that coming off the bench very often.”
Last Friday, it was Hield who pulled the Sooners out of the fire, scoring 17 first-half points to help OU erase an early nine-point deficit in the eventual victory.
“This bench is really deep,” Hield said. “Everybody has a certain role they can play and brings a little something different. We’re versatile in what we can do.”
Being flexible is a bonus in early season tournaments as well the postseason. The Sooners will either face Clemson or Gonzaga on Friday. West Virginia, Marist, Vanderbilt and Davidson are on the other side of the bracket. OU will meet one of them on Sunday.
Whether or not it’s in the championship game depends on how well the Sooners play.
They haven’t fared well in these Thanksgiving weekend tournaments in recent years.
Since winning the NIT Season Tip-Off in 2008, the Sooners have just 3-6 in the Great Alaska Shootout (2009), Maui Invitational (2010) and 76 Classic (2011). Although, OU did reach the championship game of the 76 Classic.
Fitzgerald was part of all three of those teams. The depth is something those previous teams lacked.
“We have the ability to bring a ton of energy,” he said. “We’re doing a good job at it. We just hope to bring the same intensity to Orlando.”
If OU does, it may be enough to come home with a tournament title for the first time in four years. They’ve shown through two games; they have the depth to do it.