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May 8, 2013

Buddy Hield, veterans must step up

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TULSA --Buddy Hield will likely become a focal point in Oklahoma's game plan, both offensively and defensively.

Even after missing five games due to a broken foot suffered in home blowout of Texas Christian, the sophomore guard will be the team's leading returner in minutes per game (25.1), scoring (7.8 points), rebounds (4.2), assists (1.9) and steals (1.3).

But following that injury he didn't immediately return to the force he was earlier in the season for OU men's basketball coach Lon Kruger.

"Well more than anything else I think the difficulty Buddy experienced was coming back off that injury," Kruger said. "He came back pretty quickly considering the injury that he had.

"I think physically he was OK, mentally he was OK, but just never did quite get back to that level that he played at prior to the injury," Kruger said.

Though Hield contributed a total of just 14 points in OU's final four games last season -- including just four points against San Diego State in 25 minutes of tournament play -- Kruger insists Hield played well during spring practice and expects him to continue to progress through the offseason.

"He's full speed," Kruger said. "He's had a great spring. He'll work throughout the summer, and he'll have a really good sophomore year."

Despite a first-round outing in the NCAA tournament to conclude the 2012-13 season Oklahoma performed above expectations in Kruger's second season in charge. After a lackluster 2011-12 season that saw the Sooners lose more games than they won, Kruger's men adapted to his style of play.

Steven Pledger didn't question the offensive scheme when it no longer revolved around his ability to shoot from beyond the arc. His scoring dropped but his influence remained the same as evidenced by his All-Big 12 third team selection.

Andrew Fitzgerald and Sam Grooms didn't buck after being asked to come off the bench to begin last season after starting every one of Oklahoma's games during the 2011-12 season.

The group elected a leader early in Romero Osby and followed him through the closing stretch of the Big 12 regular season. Players such as former Sooner Amath M'Baye rallied around him to provide energy and substance over the course of the season.

The 2013 seniors provided the backbone of last year's team, and now they're gone.

"That group's got good memories for a lifetime," Kruger said. "They hadn't played in a postseason tournament, so very happy for them to have had that experience."

Now is the time for OU's newest and oldest group of veterans to build, to push. Veterans like senior Cameron Clark.

Clark continued to play hard for his teammates and coaches when asked to become a role player and power forward -- a position he was unaccustomed to playing. He scored a season-high 17 points twice last season but has underperformed for much of his collegiate career.

As a prep player, he was one of the most highly-regarded recruits in the country, but last season he averaged a career-low 6.5 points and 3.2 boards per game.

He came off the bench for big contributions in games the Sooners needed to win to remain relevant in the quest for the program's first tourney bid since 2009. He'll be asked to do even more this season as one of just two seniors on a team which has become young overnight.

Suddenly, OU will play more sophomores than seniors in 2013-14. Suddenly, OU's strength last season, post play, is in question.

Freshman guard Frank Booker will be expected to help fill the void left by Pledger, and sophomores Isaiah Cousins and Je'lon Hornbeak will need to mature into capable crunch-time players.

At times, Cousins was uncomfortable playing point guard, the position he started the season playing, and teams began to attack him as the ball-handler regularly. Hornbeak looked ready for the challenge of Big 12 Conference basketball during non-conference play but scored in double figures just twice during Big 12 play.

"Freshmen group with Buddy and Isaiah Cousins, Je'lon Hornbeak all got a lot of experience," Kruger said. "Good minutes on the floor. All three are gym rats. They love being in the gym."

Kruger is high on Hield, Cousins and Hornbeak and believes a large amount of growth in college players occurs between the end of a freshman season and the beginning of a sophomore season. That growth will be crucial for OU come November.

"They think they're working hard, and they make some progress," Kruger said. "Then after their freshman year they've gone through Big 12 play. They've gone through tournament play. They know how much more they have to invest."




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