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December 28, 2012

HOOPS: Sooner scoring need

Thursday, the Sooners were in the gym for the first of two practices that day in preparation for their game against Ohio. The Sooners were given just four days to spend time with their families before reporting back to Norman for practice on Christmas Day.

A good portion of Thursday's practice was spent shooting jumpers -- a lot of jumpers. In one drill, players were given five minutes to try to make as many jumpers as possible as a group.

SCOOPHD: A look back at SFA loss

They battled themselves, making an effort to make more shots with each passing drill. Some, like Steven Pledger and Buddy Hield, made the drill look easy. Others, like Amath M'Baye and Sam Grooms, benefited from just seeing the ball enter the hoop.

"Coach and we think we're a better shooting team than we've shown the past couple games," senior forward Romero Osby said. "So we're just trying to get back in the gym and get up as many shots as possible."

M'Baye, the Big 12's Preseason Newcomer of the Year, has slumped since the team returned from the Old Spice Classic averaging just 8.8 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. As a team, the Sooners have shot just 41.4 percent from the floor.

"We're a good shooting club," M'Baye said. "We just gotta work on it, and make sure it transfers to the games."

They'd like to see such a transformation at 7 p.m. Saturday inside Lloyd Noble Center against Ohio. The Bobcats (8-4) are one of the toughest opponents on the Sooners' schedule, having amassed one of the best 2011-12 records (29-8, 11-5) of any team OU will face this season.

With point guard D.J. Cooper at the helm, Ohio made a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA tournament last year and was only narrowly defeated in overtime by North Carolina. Cooper is averaging a career-high 7.9 assists per game and 14.3 points per game this year, and Oklahoma men's basketball coach Lon Kruger knows his guards face a formidable task when Cooper is on the offensive.

"He's a good player," Kruger said. "He can score, can move the ball, can make players around him better, which is what you want out of point guards. He does a good job."

The Sooners will need to play Kruger's fierce style of defense, and get buckets to earn their eighth win this season, but it's the latter that has been tough for OU.

Oklahoma's game against SFA was the seventh game of the season decided by seven points or fewer. Though OU managed to find a way to win five of those closely contested games in November, it's become clear against tougher competition the Sooners won't be able to rely on late game heroics to save them.

They'll need their scorers and veterans like Pledger and Osby to score double figures on most nights and their deep bench to show up every night.

Osby was only able to score eight points and pull down just three rebounds against the Lumberjacks. Part of Osby's low productivity was due sitting out big minutes after picking up his third foul in the first minute of the second half.

"It was frustrating because you want to be out there helping your team, but I really couldn't dwell on that much," Osby said. "I was trying to cheer on my guys. It's just unfortunate I had to sit on the sidelines watching the whole time."

Oklahoma's bench outscored SFA's bench 19-10, but OU was outmuscled in the paint 34-12 against a much smaller 'Jacks lineup.

M'Baye scored accounted for just three points and four rebounds in 22 minutes. He put up just two shots in the game, and recorded a team-high three turnovers.

"We know he's got the skill and the ability to perform at a much higher level than normal, and no one is more frustrated by it than Amath," Kruger said. "He is in there all the time. It'll happen for him, and everyone wanted it and he expected it to happen more quickly, and that is a little bit frustrating as a result."

Pledger has become OU's closer of late, scoring six points in the final 6:41 remaining of the game against SFA after scoring just four points in the first half. He also took a team-high 14 shots and shot 0-for-6 from 3-point range.

"When I started hitting shots, started coming back, it got everybody else in it more," Pledger said. "When I do that, I know the team's going to follow suit. I was just trying to hit shots for the team, basically."

Pledger and freshman guard Je'lon Hornbeak finished with 12 points to lead the team in scoring. Hornbeak was forced to play 33 minutes in the absence of senior point guard Sam Grooms.

Grooms could've helped OU, as he's an old school point guard. His strengths on the court are facilitating the offense and creating scoring opportunities for others -- dropping dimes.

But he wasn't able to do that for the Sooners against SFA after suffering a concussion last Sunday at practice -- and it showed.

OU's Hornbeak and freshman Isaiah Cousins -- Oklahoma's only two other options at point guard -- turned the ball over four times and combined for just three assists. Grooms averages 2.7 assists per game and owns the least amount of turnovers among the point guards.

Grooms will return to the Sooners' lineup against Ohio, and OU will be happy to have its most capable ball-handler back.

The Sooners could've benefited from his veteran leadership against the nation's No. 1-ranked scoring defense in the 'Jacks. Oklahoma shooting just 37.9 percent from the floor and allowing 10 steals against SFA didn't help the Sooners' cause.

"Every possession has to be a lot more important in terms of our execution, commitment and competitiveness and all of that," Kruger said. "We just have to keep working at it. We don't quite understand what it takes, but that's why you play and why you work every day at practice and try to get better."

Cousins and Hornbeak will eventually have to assume the point guard position permanently, and be the steady sure hands that bring the ball up the floor against the likes of Oklahoma State, of Baylor, of Kansas. They'll need to grow up in a hurry to make OU into a tournament team this season.

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