Sometimes a good scheduler earns his money by putting together a slate that challenges a team without overwhelming it, balances development with resume building, and puts the team in position to earn its way into March and make a run when they get there. Other times, he does so by keeping the team from having to travel out of the city while a pandemic engulfs the nation but still gives them the chance to pick up a couple of big wins. Mario Mercurio is the best in the business, and he has done everything he can to set Xavier up with a traditional resume in distinctly non-traditional times.
The last of the opportunities to make that happen occurs when Oklahoma comes to town on the eve of conference play. The Sooners were one of the best 19-win teams in the nation last year, owing to a non-conference schedule that had 7 of their 12 games contested in KenPom tiers A+B followed by the brutal run through the Big 12. After 14 games, they sat at 11-3 but had dropped big potential resume games away from home against Stanford, Wichita State, and Creighton. They dropped three of four but clawed back over .500 in conference with wins over West Virginia and Iowa State before the stretch run. That run saw them hamstring themselves with a three-game losing streak, and they were distinctly on the bubble before the whole thing fell apart.
Former Kansas State shortstop Lonald “Lon” Kruger is head coach, having been in the business so long that he got his first D1 head job at Texas Pan-American. He has coached over 1,000 games in D1 and another 171 in the NBA, taken 5 schools to the NCAA tournament including 2 to the Final Four, and won conference coach of the year honors in 3 different conferences. During his time at Oklahoma, his teams have played up-tempo basketball and limited turnovers. He has molded his game plan to his personnel, alternately sending men to the glass or bombing threes as he’s had the bodies to do so. Defensively, his teams don’t chase turnovers but have generally done well in forcing bad shots. Killing possessions with rebounding has been a weak point fairly consistently.
The losses start right at the top of the stat sheet, with Kristian Doolittle, the team’s leader in scoring and rebounding, having taken his 15.8/8.9/2.0 game line on moved on to join Vaqueros de Bayamón in the Puerto Rican league. Also out is guard Jamal Bienemy, who started 30 games as a sophomore last year and put up a game line of 5.2/4.0/2.8. He transferred to UTEP, where he was granted a waiver for immediate eligibility (obviously).
There is a lot coming back for the Sooners. Sharpshooting 6’9” forward Brady Manek averaged 14.4/6.2/0.9 last year and is 187-500 (37.4%) from beyond the arc in his three-year career. His rebounding numbers aren’t great, but he’s a solid rim protector. Also back for a senior season is leading returning scorer Austin Reaves, a 6’5” wing who averaged 14.7/5.3/3.0 last season. He’s a Wichita State transfer who was incredibly efficient there but was a bit of a volume scorer last season. He shot 45% from deep on 182 attempts in two years as a Shocker but was just 42-162 (25.9%) last year. If he gets that number back up, he’ll be a menace this season. His 18.8% assist rate led the team, which isn’t good.
Part of the reason Bienemy transferred out was the potential for the returning combo of De’Vion Harmon and Alondes Williams to eat up guard minutes. Harmon is a 6’1” rising sophomore who put up 7.4 somewhat inefficient points per game last year. He didn’t shoot particularly well from the floor at 36.4%, but his 34.3% from three-point range and 70% mark from the line hint at a better shooter in there. He doesn’t distribute, but his ball security numbers were good. Williams is a 6’5” rising senior who came in after a good two-year career at the JuCo level. He shot the three well there, but he was mostly a slasher last year for Coach Kruger.
Umoja Gibson transferred in from North Texas, where he averaged 14.4 PPG as a sophomore last year. He received a waiver - because of course he did - and will be immediately eligible to play. A career 37% shooter on 432 three-point attempts, he’ll be instant offense for the Sooners. Oklahoma is still waiting to hear on the waiver for Cal State Northridge wing Elijah Harkless; he’s 6’5” and a solid rebounder. He also has a career 20-56 mark from deep.
Incoming freshman Trey Phipps is a 6’2” shooting guard who can really shoot (as the name of his position would imply). He hit 337 career threes on a 39% clip in high school and was 57-102 from deep on the Under Armor AAU circuit. He’ll need to add bulk for the D1 level. Josh O’Garro is a 6’5” wing who rounds out the modest two-man class. O’Garro has big time athleticism but needs to add poundage to his current weight of 175 lbs. He was brought in with the expectation of redshirting, but expectations often go awry in 2020.
Oklahoma returned more than 70% of its scoring this season and seems primed to do more than scrap for a bubble spot again. The senior combination of Reaves and Manek gives them a pair of guys they can rely on to keep things ticking over, and the returning talent should mesh with the incoming, immediately eligible guys to for a formidable core. Lon Kruger has been in the game long enough to see everything twice, and I think he has a team here that he can take on a second-weekend run in March.
Unless the whole thing gets cancelled again, or they lose a bunch of games to covid.