Preseason overseas trips are quickly burgeoning among the college hoops community. Last season, 60 college basketball teams made the voyage to another continent to test the waters against international competitors. Among those were Florida Gulf Coast, which shocked the nation by advancing to the Sweet Sixteen as a 15-seed last March, Arizona, which also made the Sweet Sixteen, and Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State—accounting for all the Big 12 teams that ventured to foreign lands—all of which made the NCAA Tournament in the ensuing season. Of course, the payoff isn’t always so high, but it would be hard to find a negative about such an opportunity.
The experience is certainly good for cohesiveness. In many ways, this is a vacation, and there is just something about a vacation that forms new bonds and builds upon old ones. In the scrimmages, players will learn to work as a team. For the coaches, it is a scouting opportunity. They can assess the team’s strengths and weaknesses and hopefully make the necessary adjustments before the season. In a sense, it gives them an advantage over schools that don’t get the chance to take their teams abroad.
It is not all about basketball, however. It also provides a chance for the young athletes to expand their cultural knowledge. Many of the teams go exploring in between games, allowing themselves to learn more about the country they are visiting. It’s an experience unprecedented by all the road trips that will follow during the season.
All this in mind, it’s no wonder coach Lon Kruger jumped at the occasion when his Oklahoma Sooners were presented with the chance to tour Europe for a week. The Sooners will play their first game in Belgium on the 8th of August, and twice more on the 9th and 10th. From there, they will travel to France and prepare for two final games on the 14th and 15th.
There will be no shortage of touring for the Sooners, either. They plan on taking full advantage of the ample sightseeing opportunities, and already have a tour of Normandy, site of the World War II D-Day invasions of 1944, planned.
Still, basketball will remain the focus. The Sooners made the dance for the first time in three years last season. This year, the objective is to do it again. Still, early in the year, this young team is much like an unsolved puzzle. The Europe trip will serve as a barometer for the Sooners progress towards their ultimate goal. Here are a few things to watch for:
Emergence of a Post Presence
The offseason saw the exodus of several integral components of the Sooners’ 2012-2013 success. The loss was felt the greatest in the post, however, where the Sooners lost their leader and most efficient player, Romero Osby. Osby led the Sooners in scoring, rebounding, and blocking—while shooting an efficient 52.6% from the floor—and his loss alone leaves a gaping hole down low. However, it is accentuated by the fact that the Sooners also lost forwards Amath M’Baye (10.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG) and Andrew Fitzgerald (5.7 PPG, 3.3 RPG), leaving them with virtually nothing but fresh faces down low.
Senior forward Cameron Clark could log some minutes at the four spot, as he did intermittently last season. At 6-foot-6, Clark is undersized for the position, but his quickness creates mismatches against bigger, slower players. If Clark can find some early success playing the position in Europe, it could be a harbinger of things to come during the season.
Ryan Spangler is also a potential candidate to breakout in the post. The 6-foot-8 Oklahoma native sat out last year after transferring from Gonzaga, but earned valuable experience with the practice squad. He has shown to be a skilled rebounder, and is ready to showcase those skills in game action.
JUCO forward D.J. Bennett could contribute right away after redshirting last year. With a 7-foot-4 wing span, Bennett is an adept shot blocker and could be a defensive anchor in the paint. Like Spangler, having sat out a year and practiced with the team may be beneficial to him come time to perform.
The Sooners also added JUCO big man Keshaun Hamilton in the offseason. Unfortunately, he will not be able to make the trip, as they are still sorting some things out academically, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be impactful in some way this season. Oklahoma also added Edson Avila, another JUCO big, but some reports say he may not be able to make the team. Coupled with the fact that his name has been removed from the roster on the team website, it doesn’t look good for Avila.
Whoever it may be, someone needs to step up in the paint. The Europe trip offers a prime opportunity to do just that.
Who Will Play PG?
The question has been at the epicenter of the Sooner program since the beginning of last season. The Sooners oscillated point guards last season, with Sam Grooms, Je’lon Hornbeak and Isaiah Cousins all starting at the position at some point. Grooms is out of the picture this year, having graduated, but for Cousins and Hornbeak, the battle is still on. Add to the picture incoming freshman Jordan Woodard—who’s a name being tossed around as a candidate for the starting job—and it figures to be an all-out war.
Coming out of Edmond Memorial, Woodard is small but deft, and a natural at the position, unlike the aforementioned Cousins and Hornbeak, who are combo guards. The only thing going against him is lack of experience. The next week will serve as a gauge for his readiness to contribute to the team. If he is not, it could be Hornbeak or Cousins running the show.
Progress of 2016 Class
Last season, Kruger signed his first full recruiting class. It consisted of Buddy Hield, Cousins and Hornbeak. Three guys that figure to be the cornerstone of the program’s future. They epitomize what Kruger seeks in his players: a will to win.
The three frosh guards ran on what seemed to be a non-stop motor last season; diving for loose balls, picking pockets, and creating countless fast break opportunities for the Sooners. Hield even earned the moniker “Energizer Buddy” amongst some fans, due to his incessant effort and lively personality.
This year, the three will look to take the leap forward that often comes with the transition from freshman to sophomore season. They will need to, too. After losing three of five starters from last season, the Sooners hopes will rest widely on the shoulders of this trio. How much they have improved in five months of practice will be a big question answered by this Europe trip. If they have by big margins, it could mean good things not only for this season, but also for the two that will follow.
Finding a Leader
In losing Osby, the Sooners not only lost their most prominent post presence, but also their leader. Osby was the guy young players turned to last season. He was the voice of reason in the locker room. Now he’s gone. Someone has to fill the void left behind. It could be Clark or Tyler Neal, both entering their senior seasons. It could be the vociferous Hield. Woodard could surprise and take the reins, or maybe Hornbeak will. It could be anybody. Hopefully, by the end of the week it will be clearer who that will be.
Cam He Do it?
I’ve written a lot about Cameron Clark in this article, because he will be another key piece to the Sooners’ success this year. So key, I figured I’d give him his own section as well.
Sooner fans have been waiting for Clark to breakout for years now. Ever since he was a freshman, he has tantalized with his athleticism and speed. Factor in his length, and he has seemingly every tool needed to be successful. Every now and then, he provides a glimpse into what could be with a Sportscenter top ten-worthy dunk. The main problem is consistency. Twice he scored 17 points last season, and scored 10 or more six times total, but he also had quite a few games where he would put up miniscule numbers. Unlike in previous years, though, I don’t think it was that Clark couldn’t score—he simply didn’t need to.
The Sooners had so many weapons last year, Clark was moved to the bench, after starting his freshman and sophomore seasons. Off the bench, he had his most efficient season ever shooting the ball. He had a 56.7 TS% and connected on 43% on his two point jumpers, and 80% on shots at the rim, better than any returning Sooner. Per 40 minutes, he averaged roughly 15 points.
Of course, these favorable numbers could just be circumstance. Coming, off the bench, Clark likely spent a lot of time playing the opposing team’s second string, rather than its starters. That’s why it will be important to keep an eye on him in the Sooners games abroad. If the efficiency was indeed real, Clark could be the Sooners’ best player this season.
One of the Sooners greatest advantages last season was the depth of the team. Oklahoma could easily go 10-deep, lessening the effects of fatigue. After losing five key players from last year, one has to wonder whether the Sooners will have the same luxury this season. Though it is likely Kruger will play several different rotations, the individual performances of the players will give a glimpse of how deep the Sooners can afford to go this season.
All in all, the trip overseas should be nothing but a positive for the Sooners. With the chance to get some extra playing time in as well as learn about a different culture, this figures to be a very productive week for Oklahoma basketball.
Want more Sooner hoops? Follow me on Twitter @ChandlerVessels