MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

OU

January 14, 2013

Sooners appear to be headed in right direction

— NORMAN – It’s been years since an Oklahoma basketball team truly progressed throughout a season. Since Blake Griffin left following the 2009 season, the three teams that followed were worn down to a nub by the rigors of Big 12 Conference.

What happens in February and March will ultimately decide if that string is over. But the Sooners’ 77-68 victory over Oklahoma State Saturday at Lloyd Noble Center was a display of how far they’ve progressed this season.

Winning wasn’t shocking, but OU holding off its Bedlam rival was.

The offensive execution was exactly what Sooner coach Lon Kruger was looking for: lots of layups and wide open 3-pointers that came within the design of the offense.

“We’re shooting the ball a lot better,” Kruger said.

Statistically, it could have been better. OU only shot 43.1 percent for the game. But going 8-for-13 from 3-point range and 19-for-21 from the free-throw line was impressive.

The offensive improvement didn’t start on Saturday. The victory was more than OU’s fourth straight, it was the third time in the last four games the Sooners (11-3, 2-0 Big 12) have scored at least 70 points.

Games like Saturday’s have been rare for a team that got off to a hot start by winning defensive struggles.

But several things have started to click in the last two weeks. One is typical for college basketball teams. The holiday break allows gives teams about three weeks without school and that time is heavily spent in the practice gym.

The Sooners have gotten crisper on the offensive end in their last four games because of the extra work.

Forward Amath M’Baye is the prime example. He scored 15 points Saturday on 5-for-9 shooting and none of the shots looked forced. In mid December, the junior seemed to be lost on the floor.

"I'm starting to feel great,” he said. “Just the fact that I'm able to work with my teammates and my teammates are able to work with me. I take issue to make sure I know every play or philosophy to know where the ball is supposed to go. I think that I'm start to feel real comfortable in it."

It was M’Baye’s alley-oop dunk off an inbounds play with 4 minutes left that stretched OU’s lead out to 13 points and put the game away.

It was a play OU looks for every time it inbounds the ball underneath its basket, but involves timing and reading the defense and all the other things that come with extended time on the court.

OU made them throughout the game.

The 17 points Romero Osby finished with were typical. The 15 points from freshman guard Buddy Hield were not. He was 3-for-5 from 3-point range. Freshman guard Je’lon Hornbeak was 2-for-2 from beyond the arc before twisting his ankle midway through the second half.

There are still other pieces that can fall into place. Guard Sam Grooms and forward Cameron Clark were the only bench players to score. OU won despite its bench being outscored 21-11. It was one of the few times that’s happened all season. Forwards Andrew Fitzgerald, Tyler Neal and guard Isaiah Cousins are capable of more than they showed Saturday afternoon.

“I think the depth is a big key,” Kruger said. “We have veteran guys coming off the bench, and last year we didn't quite have that ability to sustain anything good that we had going.

“We have Andrew, and Sam came in today and plays great in a critical stage, and I think Cousins is a talented freshman that is going to get better and better. Cameron is doing a great job off the bench, as well as Tyler Neal, a veteran guy, coming in. That depth is important in sustaining good play."

Until that all starts to click, the ceiling isn’t going to get in the way.

In that sense, OU’s right where it hoped it would be in the middle of January.

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