The Oklahoma Sooners are 17-2 and ranked No. 1 in the country. Their only losses were at then-No. 1 Kansas, 109-106, in an epic triple overtime game on Jan. 4, and at then-No. 19 Iowa State, 82-77, on Jan. 18. The Sooners have handled everyone else – often with ease.
So, are they as good as their No. 1 ranking suggests?
“That’s always hard to measure, but we like the players we’ve got,” Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “We like their attitude about working hard. This is a group that obviously shoots the ball well, (and we’ve got) great senior leadership with Isaiah Cousins, Buddy Hield and Ryan Spangler. Those guys love to play, they love to work, they put so much time in the gym. They know how much lies ahead. They haven’t gotten full of themselves. I’ve liked the way they’ve handled the rankings all year long. I like this group. I like the group a lot.”
Kruger especially likes Hield, who looks like a lock for national player of the year. Hield is averaging 25.9 points per game on 53.0 percent shooting, including 52.3 percent from three-point range and 90.3 percent from the foul line.
The guy simply doesn’t miss.
“His focus and work ethic has been just off-the-charts,” Kruger said. “I’ve been doing this 35 years, so when we say he works a lot harder and spends a lot more time (on his craft) than anyone else we’ve ever had – the standard’s pretty high. That’s what Buddy’s done. He’s relentless. He’s in the gym all the time. He’s very focused. Last year, he thought he should have been rated a little higher with the NBA folks but accepted the fact that he wasn’t (and used) that as motivation. He got back in the gym. We’ve never had anyone come close to putting up the number of shots on his own as Buddy has.”
The Sooners play LSU (13-7) in Baton Rouge on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET. The Tigers, of course, are led by freshman Ben Simmons, who is averaging 19.8 points, 12.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.8 steals per game. If not for Hield, Simmons, most likely, would be the runaway candidate for player of the year.
“He’s terrific,” Kruger said. “He does so many things to impact the game on the floor, and he does it generally without shooting the ball outside 15 feet. There’s a lot of things he does extremely well and will continue to be an outstanding player.”
Regardless of what happens Saturday, Kruger, 63 has his sights set on returning to the Final Four for the first time since 1994, when he was the head coach at Florida. But Kruger doesn’t want to get back to the Final Four for himself; he wants to get back for his players.
“It’s way more satisfying to see the looks of satisfaction on your players’ faces,” he said. “It would mean a whole lot. It’s about the players. The big thrill out of the ’94 Final Four, those players, those fans, had those memories for a lifetime – and that’s so important. We want nothing more than that for every group of players, but certainly this group’s got a chance like 15 or 20 other teams in the country. And yet, with the seniors that we have, we know there’s a lot of work yet to be done.”