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November 11, 2012

Notebook: Strong bench and health strengths of OU

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Oklahoma men's basketball started the 2011-12 season off and running like small town gossip, and got more buckets than Jack and Jill.

The Sooners scored 85 or more points in three of their first five games en route to a 4-1 start. By the New Year, they'd amassed a 10-2 record in non-conference play.

OU will look to better that mark when it opens the regular season at 2pm Sunday inside Lloyd Noble Center against Louisiana-Monroe.

Only one starter returned from last year's Warhawk team. The Sooners are 4-0 against ULM and won their last game against ULM 72-61 in 2009 at Lloyd Noble.

SCOOPHD: OU HOOPS SET TO TIPOFF SEASON

Senior point guard Sam Grooms is anxious begin this season after a disappointing end to last season.

"I know we had a good group of guys coming in and Coach (Lon Kruger) coming back for his second year," Grooms said. "I've heard stories about how he's created better teams in his second year than his first."

During Kruger's second year at Kansas State, he took the Wildcats to the Elite Eight. In his second year at Florida, he led the Gators to the National Invitational Tournament semifinals.

With an OU second unit that has the potential to become one of the best in recent memory, Kruger could lead the Sooners to their first postseason tournament appearance since 2009.

"That second group of guys is good, especially that group that I come in with," Grooms said. I know two of them very well because they started with me all of last year."

The two are senior forward Andrew Fitzgerald and junior guard Cameron Clark. Fitzgerald will be counted on to provide scoring in the post off the bench while

Clark brings an athletic presence and flexibility to the Sooners' offense.

Kruger has said the starting lineup is still in flux, but what he's put on the floor during preseason doesn't seem to be broken. Why fix it?

MINUTE MEN

Minutes for the bulk of OU's returners are down, but that might be because Kruger has the ability to put more bodies into rotation.
No player played more than 25 minutes in either exhibition game and most played between 14 and 22 minutes.

Fitzgerald averaged 28 minutes per game during the 2012-13 campaign and was the Sooners' third leading scorer. But with the emergence of junior forward Amath M'Baye, Fitzgerald's playing time has taken a hit.

In Oklahoma's preseason games, Fitzgerald played a total of 33 minutes and scored 10 points. Fitzgerald said he's unaffected by the early move to the bench, especially if the move means the Sooners will notch wins.

"Whatever the team needs me to do, that's what I'm going to do," he said. "I have no problem coming off the bench."

Senior forward Romero Osby applauded Fitzgerald for how he's reacted to the idea he might not play as many minutes as he has in recent years.

"Some people can't come off the bench, and some people can," Osby said. "I think he's in a good situation where he can."

Osby believes the Sooners will be better this season if Fitzgerald continues to come off the bench because he'll be fresher than he'd be if he played a lot of minutes.

"He can come off the bench, score buckets, rebound and still defend," Osby said. "But he doesn't have to do it for 35, 40 minutes."

HEALTH IMPORTANT TO SUCCESS

Kruger has repeatedly stated he believes one of the strengths of this year's team is its depth, and that proved true during preseason. Yet one of the understated strengths of last year's squad could be the strength of this year's squad: OU was and remained healthful.

"With every team, that's important," Kruger said. "Certainly, we're no different. The healthier we are, the better for sure."

Oklahoma avoided the injury bug last season and was able to play its best five in nearly every game. The Sooners won't have to avoid the injury bug entirely to be competitive this season, but it certainly wouldn't hurt.

Osby said he believes great teams always seem to have good luck with avoiding significant injuries. He hopes OU can too.

"It's a long season, and there's a lot of bruising battles, so we want to try to stay as healthy as possible, but that's in the Lord's hands," Osby said. "We leave it there. We just play every game like it's our last."

ON THE REBOUND

The Sooners won both of their preseason games, holding each opponent to 66 points. OU still has work to do on the glass, though.

After allowing a much smaller Division-II Washburn team to stay with them on the boards, the Sooners outrebounded Division-II Central Oklahoma by just nine boards in their 94-66 victory. Osby and M'Baye combined for just 10 rebounds in last Wednesday night's game.

Kruger emphasized the importance of not getting beat on the glass after the win.

"So we have our work cut out for us rebounding the basketball," he said. "We are athletic enough and should be aggressive enough to hold our own on the boards."

Osby agreed the Sooners need to perform better when scrapping for loose balls. He put the onus on himself to chase down missed shots, to lead by example.

"I was the leading rebounder last year, and my rebounding slipped toward the end of the year too," he said. "So I've got to get mine back up to where it's double digits every night. I think everyone else will follow suit."



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