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June 26, 2013

OU must rebuild as Big 12 reaches new heights

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The Sooners’ European tour, beginning August 6 and ending August 16, is well-timed and needed.

Oklahoma will play five games against professional European teams and will have a chance to experience an unfamiliar environment in a tournament-style atmosphere. The extra work will give OU time to learn to play together.

More importantly the trip abroad will provide time for Lon Kruger to coach two freshmen he’ll look to play almost immediately in shooting guard Frank Booker and point guard Jordan Woodard.

Last season, sophomore guards Isaiah Cousins, Buddy Hield and Je’lon Hornbeak were welcomed as pieces to the puzzle that could -- and would -- lead Oklahoma to its first NCAA tournament and 20-win season since 2009.

This season freshmen guards Booker and Woodard will likely prove vital to any success the Sooners hope to have.

Admittedly, Kruger hasn’t seen them much of them in the collegiate environment. But what he’s seen he’s liked.

“They’re two individuals that are a couple of gym rats,” Kruger said. “They love to get in there and play.”

Kruger said he expected Woodard to play often at OU’s caravan stop in Tulsa last month.

“We expect Jordan to come in and contribute a lot right away,” he said. “He battled injury the last couple months of the season with that hamstring and that limited him a little bit, but he's a tough guy that likes to play.”

Kruger is adept at using what he’s got, squeezing as much out of a roster as is possible, and it seems he’ll have do another job to compete this season in the Big 12.

Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State are favorites to finish atop the conference in 2013-14. The Big 12 is a tough conference that became tougher with the return of many players who will have an opportunity to play professionally.

OSU point guard Marcus Smart -- a possible Player of the Year candidate -- will give teams fits for at least one more season.

“You don’t find too many kids like Marcus Smart,” said OSU associate head coach Butch Pierre. “He just has all those great leadership qualities.”

KU’s Andrew Wiggins might be the most watched and scouted freshman of the coming season. Standing 6-foot-7 and weighing just under 200 pounds, he’s still growing.

Comparisons to Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant have been made about the nation’s top player in 2013.

“Believe the hype,” said Texas coach Rick Barnes. “He is that good a player, a terrific, terrific player.”

Iowa State proved it can compete with top teams in the country last season, and Baylor returns significant members of its 2013 National Invitational Tournament championship team. Six of the 10 coaches in the league have coached teams to the Final Four.

“Big 12 fans should be excited,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “This should be a great year with all the returnees and newcomers.”

“There’s a lot of talent in our league,” said Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. “I think it’ll be one of the top five conferences in the country.”

The conference will have a chance to prove it with the recent announcement of the Big 12/SEC challenge.

With some teams putting the finishing touches on their non-conference schedules -- Kansas is slated to play Colorado, Florida and New Mexico all in the same week in December -- that could do quite a bit of good for their RPIs come March.

This means it’s going to be harder for an Oklahoma team to return to the heights it reached last season and harder still to finish among the top three teams in the conference.

Five seniors anchored the Sooners in 2012-13. This season that number goes to just two in Cameron Clark and Tyler Neal. That’s quite a bit of leadership lost.

Newcomers in the post like Edson Avila, D.J. Bennett, Keshaun Hamilton and Ryan Spangler should help with the loss of Amath M’Baye, Andrew Fitzgerald and Romero Osby. But that remains to be seen.

The competition for playing time will be heighted, and under the pressures of practices, Kruger believes a team capable of playing with the best in the nation might be formed.

“It’s gonna be healthy competition among the guys in this group,” Kruger said. “We’ll be very deep on the perimeter. A lot of new guys on the interior, but the competition for time will be very, very high.”




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