Tahlequah Daily Press

Sports

March 27, 2014

Sooners die by the 3 in NCAA tournament

With 11 seconds left in regulation, Oklahoma needed one point to win to beat North Dakota State and advance in the NCAA tournament. The fact that it tried for three symbolized the 2013-14 season and a missing ingredient required to improve its fortunes.

The Sooners’ addiction to 3-pointers defined its 23-10 season. When the deep shots fell, the Sooners were as good as any team in the Big 12 and a legitimate Top 25 team.

OU shot 39.7 percent from the arc this season and averaged 22.78 attempts per game. But it turned to 3-pointers, and little else, late in the season.

The Sooners attempted at least 30 in their last five games. Only once — the meeting with Baylor in the Big 12 tournament — were they trying to rally from a massive deficit.

“We’ve got to have more diversity offensively,” OU coach Lon Kruger said following Thursday’s 80-75 overtime loss to the Bison last Thursday in Spokane, Wash.

The hope is the three players OU has signed for next season will create more of it. OU inked prep forwards in November: Dante Buford, Khadeem Lattin and Jamuni McNeace.

Buford, a 6-foot-7 small forward from Arlington Country Day in Jacksonville, Fla., is in the mold of Cameron Clark and Tyler Neal, both seniors who played their final game last Thursday.

Lattin and McNeace are both traditional 6-foot-9 power forwards. OU didn’t have anyone like that, and the absence of a back-to-the-basket scorer really showed down the stretch.

Spangler averaged 9.3 points a game and in first three months of the season, and he was a rebounding machine that could score in the paint. His impact dipped considerably in the middle of February.

“We want to continue to shoot good shots, but Ryan, inside, will get more comfortable offensively,” Kruger said. “The younger kids we have coming in and the kids we have coming back, we’ll keep getting better.”

Because OU was young this season, there was a strong feeling the 23-10 record and second-place finish in the Big 12 Conference was a prelude to much greater expectations for the 2014-2015 season.

Its nucleus is still young. Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler and Je’lon Hornbeak were all sophomores and displayed tremendous growth from their initial seasons. Point guard Jordan Woodard was just a freshman. If he mirrors the improvement of the preceding group, he could be something special.

In order to get to that elite level, OU has to find an aggressive streak it lacked — on both ends of the floor — this season.

The sequence that led to overtime against North Dakota State was a perfect example. Kruger called a play for Cousins to penetrate as the clock ticked down. He did with ease, but instead of looking to score a basket or at least draw a foul, he kicked the ball out of for Buddy Hield’s 3-point attempt.

Hield had been making those corners 3s at 40 percent all season, but it wasn’t the shot OU wanted in the final seconds of a tied game.

The teams that have long NCAA tournament shelf lives do not settle for a jump shot in that situation. They force an opponent to stop them. That should be the lesson the Sooners take away from this season. Teams that force the action typically win and advance.

“We have a good group of young guys coming back. We just have to keep learning. We learned how to fight and stay together as a group no matter what. We proved we can come back in games. No matter what, we always came back,” Hield said.

He is correct.

Even in the games OU lost, it always came close to digging its way out of holes. Most of those deficits were caused because the 3-pointers were not falling or because of defensive lapses.

The Sooners understand their failings. They have an offseason to work on them. This group proved they’re willing to put in all the necessary work to correct them.

“They made a lot of progress from the start of the year to the finish,” Kruger said. “Again, in the short term, this is extremely disappointing and hard to experience, but they like to play, they will continue making progress and we’ll get back to work and try to get better.”

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