Tahlequah Daily Press

Sports

January 11, 2014

Unbeaten Cyclones on tap for Sooners

Back in November, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger warned his team that it was heading down a dangerous path. They all knew scoring points was something they did well, but an over-reliance on that scoring ability came with a price.

“If we were just gonna run and score, the guys that do that don’t play defense and we didn’t want to do that,” OU forward Ryan Spangler said. “We’re doing that right now.”

Considering the Sooners (12-3, 1-1 Big 12) are giving up 79.1 points per game, which currently ranks No. 322 in Division I, there’s ample room for improvement.

The last three games show the problem. OU allowed 102 in an overtime loss to Louisiana Tech Dec. 30. It won at Texas Jan. 4 despite giving up 85 points and gave up 90 in Wednesday’s loss to No. 18 Kansas. Both the losses were at home.

A three-game losing streak is what OU is trying to avoid when No. 7 Iowa State (14-0, 2-0) arrives at Lloyd Noble Center at 11 a.m. today.

Everything about this game points to one of the best offensive games Lloyd Noble Center has hosted in year. Both teams are averaging 87.0 points a game. OU’s Cameron Clark leads the league in scoring at 18.7 points a game. The Cyclones’ Melvin Ejim is No. 3 at 17.8.

But the reason Iowa State is the conference’s last undefeated team is because it’s defended with the same intensity it’s scored. Opponents are shooting 39.2 percent against the Cyclones. OU’s foes: 43 percent.

A percentage point typically equates to one a basket. How would the Sooners’ season look if it gave up four less baskets a game?

Kruger admitted the Sooners’ defensive issues have him worried. He said after the Kansas loss, when OU allowed another opponent to make more than it missed on its home floor that something had to change.

Kruger, who is the only coach to lead five different programs to the NCAA tournament, has believed man-to-man is the way to defend teams. He’s actually tried more zones this year to try to kick-start the Sooners defensively. It’s been met with mixed results.

Above all else, the fact OU was able to get away with lackluster defensive efforts in November and December because it could simply outscore most of the teams it faced created a false reality.

“It’s human nature to say things are OK because we’re winning,” Kruger said. “We’re in Big 12 play. (Winning) won’t continue if we don’t get better defensively.”

The message hasn’t fallen on deaf ears. Cameron Clark matched his career-high with 32 points against Kansas, but he knew scoring 40 wouldn’t have put OU over the top. The defense has to get better.

It isn’t a single player issue, but it mostly starts on the perimeter. OU’s guards haven’t done enough to keep opponents from easily getting to the paint.

Iowa State’s guards have given their opponents fits with their ability to get in the paint, collapse the defense and hit open shooters. They know how to stress a team.

“In the Big 12, you’re gonna get attacked if you relax at any moment,” OU point guard Jordan Woodard said. “We have to give more effort.”

Kruger hasn’t started pulling his hair out over the dilemma yet. Confidence is an enormous part of the game. If you can get some, he believes it will spread.

“We’ve got to have some success,” Kruger said. “It’s just like shooting the ball; when you’re not shooting the ball well, the best thing for your confidence is to make a couple. We just have to keep working. At some point, we’ll have some success.”

Today against Iowa State would be an ideal time for that defensive confidence to arrive.

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