NORMAN — After a long journey brought on by his dream to play in the NBA, Amath M'Baye finally feels right where he belongs at Oklahoma.
M'Baye left his native France because he thought playing college basketball in the U.S. would give him a better chance of getting to the NBA. It led him to a prep school in California, then a stint at Wyoming before he transferred to play for Lon Kruger with the Sooners.
While M'Baye pursues that goal of making it to the next level, Oklahoma believes he could be one of the missing pieces in getting the program back to the NCAA tournament after a down stretch that included NCAA sanctions and Jeff Capel being fired. And M'Baye believes in Kruger, who he got to watch as an opponent in the Mountain West and jumped at the chance to follow him to Oklahoma.
“Everywhere he's been, the program ends up with success. There's no mystery, there's no magic. He works the right way,” M'Baye said. “When you look at the players we've got and the recruiting class coming in, I don't see how we could not play well. There's no reason for us not to play well. There's no excuses.”
It starts with M'Baye, who had to sit out last season because of the NCAA's guidelines on transfers. He averaged 12 points and a team-best 5.7 rebounds as a sophomore for the Cowboys and feels he wasn't nearly as complete of a player back then.
“I was not very comfortable outside the paint when I was in Wyoming,” M'Baye said. “I could do stuff but it wasn't my strength. I think I kind of expanded my game. I feel comfortable in the post and outside the paint, I've got more tools to work with. I've got more weapons to be a threat on the defenses.”
M'Baye is finding his comfort level with the Sooners after a whirlwind few years. He didn't start playing hoops unit his mid-teens, then made the decision to leave home after meeting coach Babacar Sy from Stoneridge Prep (Calif.). He was lightly recruited and signed with Wyoming to follow best friend and fellow Frenchman Arthur Bouedo.
“A lot of things went good but not everything was great. We lost a lot of games and my coach (Heath Schroyer) got fired,” M'Baye said. “I pretty much knew I was going to leave before my coach got fired. But my coach got fired, and I started looking for new teams and new schools.”
M'Baye could be a key addition for Oklahoma, which was lacking manpower while going 15-16 and finishing eighth in the Big 12 in Kruger's first season. Kruger is also counting on contributions from freshmen Je'lon Hornbeak, Isaiah Cousins and Buddy Hield. Freshman C.J. Cole and junior college transfer D.J Bennett will redshirt.
“Especially when we got into the Big 12, we really couldn't press like we wanted to because we were only playing seven or eight guys,” senior forward Romero Osby said. “Now that we've got the chance to play 10 guys, 11 guys maybe, we've got a decent chance to really get out and pressure people and not even worry about getting fatigued. Just play through it and know that you'll get a chance to rest.”
The Sooners open the season at home Nov. 11 against Louisiana-Monroe with the hopes of returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009. They've had three straight losing seasons since that appearance in the regional finals.
“The opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament is the goal of every player and every team in the Big 12, and that should be our goal, too. That would be an indicator of success, for sure. We haven't been there for a while, no question, but that's a realistic and a healthy goal. We're not downplaying that,” Kruger said.
“That's the goal we want our guys to have every year, and I think this year is more legitimate, more reasonable that perhaps just a year ago.”
A measure of the impact M'Baye could have came when teammates voted him a team captain, along with seniors Osby and Andrew Fitzgerald, before he even played a game. M'Baye is anxious to show what he can do, and his mother is coming in from France to watch him play in an exhibition game Friday night. Until now, she's only been able to watch his practices online — a new addition for Oklahoma this fall.
“I think the journey through life makes me appreciate life even better,” M'Baye said. “I've been through a lot of stuff and I think every year I'm in a better situation.”
“I couldn't have landed anywhere better than here,” he added. “It was a tumultuous ride but I think at the end of the day, I landed exactly where I want to be.”