The Oklahoma Sooners' style can’t help but make an onlooker laugh.
It’s partly due to the joy and spontaneity the Sooners play with. It’s also their adventurous decision-making.
Fran Fraschilla, the ESPN color commentator, let loose a guttural chuckle late in Oklahoma’s 76-62 win Saturday. The Big 12 expert knew what was coming and called it out loud, and the Sooners took a hurried three-pointer when all they really needed to do was run some late-game clock at West Virginia.
Isaiah Cousins’ clutch three produced a seven-point lead. It was a classic no-no-yes moment, as any once-fired coach like Fraschilla knows all too well. A lack of smart play (or conventional wisdom) by a group of young guys can lead to all sorts of heartbreak down the road.
But these experienced Sooners, who have four starters who know each other so well—93 games in a row starting together, per Oklahoma pregame notes—don’t seem like they’ll let up on their identity anytime soon. If they didn’t change their tune after this recent losing slump, it’s obvious their entrenched coach won’t let them ditch this high-wire act.
Feb. 6 was a loss to hit-or-miss Kansas State. The Sooners beat Texas but couldn't win a Feb. 13 rematch with Kansas. Oklahoma blew a lead in the final three minutes at resurgent Texas Tech four days later, giving up 14 points on 11 turnovers and 11 second-chance points (to OU scoring four). Buddy Hield and Co. shot 6-of-23 from three-point range.
But OU still keeps on shooting from deep as if there's always a tomorrow, even if it could get the Sooners in trouble next month when the safety net of “next game” basically disappears.
Coach Lon Kruger’s team had lost three of its last four outings and let the Big 12 race it surely seemed to have locked up a couple of weeks ago slip away. And still, OU’s just gonna be OU.
It will play fast to fire away from the three-point line. Defense is regarded the same as the foul line—these Sooners don’t put a premium on either, quite frankly. They're not going to lock you down or turn you over.
What they will do is shoot, and shoot... and keep firing no matter what convention and the scoreboard may dictate.
Sticking to their system certainly paid off in front of 15,289 fans, one of the largest home crowds in Mountaineers history. The somewhat ugly, back-and-forth slugfest turned for good as Oklahoma closed out on a 24-10 run.
OU's 14-pt win at WVU is 2nd-largest road win over Top-10 team this year. Iowa's 17-point, 76-59 win at Michigan St (Jan. 14) is largest— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 20, 2016
That sure didn’t seem like how it would end, considering how it started.
OU managed to lead at halftime despite shooting just 34 percent from the field and 27 percent from beyond the arc, missing its first nine attempts.
But the Sooners weren't exactly ready to just feed it inside, or drive the ball to the rim.
Oklahoma's only saving grace was that it made 7-of-11 shots in the paint in the first 20 minutes. Shouldn't Kruger's team stick with what worked?
The Sooners, who went to Morgantown shooting 46.4 percent and led the nation with a 43.6 mark from three-point range, had only connected on 38.6 percent from the field and 30.7 percent from downtown during a 1-3 stretch.
“This is not the OU team we’ve been talking about for much of the year. It's starting to crack a little bit,” Fraschilla said in the first half.
Of course, we all should’ve known better.
But also know this: This is just how it’s going to be.
Only 14.1 percent of Hield’s shots come inside the arc, and only 32.4 percent come at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com. Even with coverage blanketing him on the perimeter, he fires away.
Hield is 10th nationally in three-point shooting percentage (48.7). But the freedom extends so far beyond him.
It’s not like Cousins was feeling hot lately. He had missed eight of his last 11 tries and then the first four of five against West Virginia before he drilled the late one to put the injury-riddled Mountaineers away.
But there’s no better example of Oklahoma’s high-wire act than Dinjiyl Walker.
The senior hadn’t made a three since Feb. 8 and clanked his first four attempts against the Mountaineers. That includes a deep shot when OU was playing short-handed (two-on-three) during a stifled fast break.
All Kruger did was clap affirmatively in response to the ill-timed shot.
If only these Sooners—still in the hunt for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament—could change one thing to make life easier.
Speak more Lattin.
As in Khadeem Lattin, a 6’9” sophomore who was a game-changer from the start. He produced nine points, 13 rebounds and, most importantly, six blocked shots—several early after West Virginia went right after him.
Lattin has mostly been known for spot-duty plays. He missed a free throw that probably could’ve won the game at Kansas in regulation last month. His tip-in later won the first meeting with West Virginia.
The OU afterthought made half of his six shots, including a key, gritty putback that sealed this one. He’s a 56 percent shooter who converts a team-best 72.9 percent at the rim. Not an offensive threat on this team, exactly.
But perhaps Hield or Cousins, or any other Sooner firing away, could use that tight defense they force to set up the inside game. Get to the rim, and let Lattin clean up close misses rather than hunt long rebounds.
If only OU could produce more than about 18 percent of its points at the foul line, especially because it shoots a very respectable 73 percent from the line.
There are easier points to be had. This team chooses not to try.
OU shot as many free throws as three-pointers, only producing six more points from long range.
As fun as it is to watch, and as much as Kruger is trying to play to his team's strengths, the Sooners are playing with fire.
Of course they’re also playing with Hield, who is still the country’s top player.
Hield: This game helps us get back our swagger. #Sooners— John Shinn (@john_shinn) February 20, 2016
Very late, he made a layup off a long pass while being fouled—when, again, most teams would’ve opted to wind the clock over points. Fraschilla made that point. You could tell he was shaking his head, perhaps part admiration and concern.
And we’re left in awe, wondering how this is all going to play out.
They are college basketball’s version of the Flying Wallendas. Family who trust each other and seem to feed off thrills. They know what they're doing, and they do it better than anyone out there.
It’ll be one of the postseason’s great dramas to see if swearing by their free-flowing principles works.