Sooners seek to reverse recent February woes

OU head coach Lon Kruger

NORMAN, Okla. — Sooner head coach Lon Kruger knows it.

His players know it.

All the college basketball experts know it.

So do the fans.

November, December and January are the months when teams come to form.

February is the month when teams start to make their money and solidify themselves as NCAA Tournament contenders or pretenders.

The last few years the Sooners have gone broke.

Since Blake Griffin left, they've gone just 3-21, winning only one game in each of the past three seasons.

The groundhog has certainly seen his shadow on Sooner basketball over that stretch, making for some very long winters.

Last year with just a 1-8 record, Kruger's first, OU posted its worst February since John MacLeod's club went 0-for in eight tries way back in 1969.

But it wasn't for a lack of effort.

The Sooners led three of those eight setbacks at the halfway point.

They were even within three of national runner-up Kansas in Lawrence at half.

That club simply couldn't finish games out.

However, Kruger feels that will be different this time around with a healthy blend of newcomers, including freshman guard trio Buddy Hield, Je'lon Hornbeak and Isaiah Cousins plus transfer forward Amath M'Baye (inactive last season), three of which are starters.

"Well, we've got compared to last year a little more depth this year is, right, a lot better," Kruger said. "And mostly a year ago it was not just depth, it was quality depth in terms of people coming off the floor and productive minutes. So, we feel much better about that this time around."

In fact, three of last year's starters—that's forward Andrew Fitzgerald and guards Sam Grooms and Cameron Clark—are coming off the bench this time around.

Meanwhile, forward Romero Osby is posting an even better year with his 14.5 points and 6.5 boards per contest.

Sharpshooting guard Steven Pledger's numbers are down, but he's been effective nonetheless in averaging 11.4 points per game.

So, there's definitely more firepower across the board when you combine all the veterans with all the newcomers.

"I think we're set up better because we have the depth," Osby said. "We can go deep into our bench and get production from everyone and everyone is starting to step up and click at the same time. The last couple Februaries we've been kinda going this way (pointing down), but it seems like this February we're kinda inching towards going the opposite direction and hopefully we can just continue to get better.

"And we gotta get some road wins and continue to win and take suit, follow suit at home. If we do that, we can stay to form."

Clearly, this is a Sooner team that has come to form much quicker and meshed much better than ones in recent years.

And it's one that is way more battle tested than some of those previous teams.

Earlier this season the Sooners played a stretch of five straight games and seven of eight outside their home arena, albeit one was in the All-College Classic in Oklahoma City.

Three of those came in true road venues.

So, a February that features half of OU's games outside the Lloyd Noble Center shouldn't be that much of an issue.

"The schedule was tough," M'Baye said. "We played a lot of road games, in general. We got a little seven-game stretch right there that was pretty hard on us, but I think we're doing pretty good so far. And like the Big 12's all about protecting your house and being able to get a couple road wins, and I think that's what we've done so far.

"We just gotta stay the course, not thinking too much about the big picture yet, but just keeping winning games and just like keep grinding. Hopefully we can do something special."

That something special would start with making the NCAA Tournament.

The Sooners haven't done that since Griffin led them to the Elite Eight back in 2008-09, a season that ended with a national quarterfinal loss to North Carolina.

Kruger and company believe that could be different this time around.

If a 14-5 and 5-2 start overall and in conference play, respectively, is any indication, that could very well be the case.

"This is a new experience for all of them in terms of the position they're in right now in terms of winning a few ball games here early in conference play," Kruger said. "I think they do understand that it's early, and the thing they've done all year and has been the focus all year is getting better every day, improve our habits every day and not worry too much about what's out there two weeks, three weeks or four weeks from now and get better today. And this group's done a pretty good job of that."

They'll try to keep that going when No. 18 Kansas State comes to town for the second meeting of the year between the two teams.

K-State won the first meeting 69-60 in Manhattan.

Tipoff for the rematch is set for 5 p.m. CT Saturday.

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