By JOHN SHINN
No season is a smooth easy ascension. There are bumps along the way.
Oklahoma hit its first one earlier this week when guard Je’lon Hornbeak suffered a broken left foot. The injury will keep the sophomore on the bench for at least a month.
On paper, it means the Sooners (8-1) will be without its sixth leading scorer (5.7 points per game) and backup point guard.
But Sooner coach Lon Kruger knows removing a player from the rotation has a ripple effect.
“It shortens our rotation and it shortens our depth at the point. It hurts us a lot of ways,” OU coach Lon Kruger said.
The short-term ramifications will be on display when the Sooners face Tulsa at 4 p.m. today at Lloyd Noble Center.
The player who faces the most pressure because of Hornbeak’s absence is freshman point guard Jordan Woodard. He’s surpassed expectations thus far. He enters today’s game averaging 10.6 points a game and 4.5 assists.
But what happens if he gets into foul trouble? What happens if he’s simply struggling?
Woodard was who Kruger talked to first after Hornbeak suffered the injury in Tuesday’s practice.
“The main thing he told me was I can’t get in foul trouble,” Woodard said. “I’m still gonna be aggressive on defense, but I don’t think it’s too much to worry about.”
But it’s a hard line to walk. What happens after Woodard picks up that first foul will be telling. One of the reasons the Sooners have been so improved offensively this season (they’re averaging 86.7 points a game) is the play of Woodard.
They’ve gotten one look at what the difference can be when he’s out of the game for an extended period. Last month against then top-ranked Michigan State, Woodard picked up his second foul with a little over 6 minutes left in the first half. The Sooners trailed by one at the time. By the time they got to the locker room at halftime, the Sooners were down by 14.
There is a plan B. Sophomore Isaiah Cousins played point guard last year and will do it to spell Woodard today and until Hornbeak is healthy.
“It doesn’t really affect me,” Cousins said. “It’s just adds on to some of the things I was already doing.”
But Cousins has become a much bigger scoring threat this season. He enters today’s game averaging 11.2 points a game. What happens if he has to spend 10 minutes a game facilitating instead of finishing?
Kruger admits he won’t ask Cousins to do as much as Woodard in those instances.
“We’ll design a package for him with some things he’s comfortable doing,” Kruger said. “We’re not going to ask him to step in there and do everything when he hasn’t been playing point at all this year.”
How much falls on Cousins’ plate is largely up to Woodard. If he can continue to play smart, the impact will be small. Pick up a couple touch fouls in the opening minutes of the game and the ripples will be felt throughout the Sooner roster.
“Everyone has to make adjustments,” Kruger said.