San Diego State takes on Oklahoma on Friday afternoon, and here is a Q&A with Crimson and Cream Machine about the Sooners.
To get to know Oklahoma a bit better, we reached out to SB Nation's Oklahoma site Crimson and Cream Machine to get some answers. We spoke with Jordan Esco to figure out this Oklahoma team, and what they bring to the table.
* What were the expectations for Oklahoma heading into this year?
I suppose it would depend on who you talked to, but for most of us (OU fans) the expectations were fairly low. None of us who follow the program were under any illusions as to what Jeff Capel left behind and the considerable rebuilding job Lon Kruger had in front of him. While there were definite improvements in Year One and Kruger has a long history of even more significant progress in Year Two, most of us were hoping for something a little bit better than a .500 record, improved play in conference, and hopefully a return to some sort of postseason tournament.
Back in November, no one could have realistically predicted a 20 win season. What we've seen up to this point, at least in my opinion, is essentially a 'best case scenario' type situation for this Oklahoma team in terms of preseason expectations. So in that sense, for a lot of us, it's almost as though the Sooners are playing with house money, so to speak.
That said, there were some struggles towards the end of the season and even with the team exceeding said expectations it would still be very disappointing if they come out Friday and do not play well.
* Do you feel that Lon Kruger gives Oklahoma any edge since he is familiar with San Diego State with his time in the Mountain West?
I'm sure it can help on some level, but ultimately it's about the players (for both teams, mind you) being able to execute. While his familiarity may help in terms of designing a defensive game plan or help determine which offensive sets might be the most effective, if his players aren't doing what he's asking of them any familiarity he may have likely won't matter.
All of which is basically my long-winded way of saying that I do not really see any way it could be a negative, but at the end of the day it's more on the players than Kruger to make it a positive.
* Who are players that San Diego State needs to be made aware of that could have a big game.
The three most important names to know for this Oklahoma team are Romero Osby, Amath M'Baye, and Steven Pledger. M'Baye may actually be a familiar name for some SDSU fans as he's a Mountain West transplant having transferred to OU from Wyoming. He's an athletic wing player who excels when he is driving to the basket and using his athleticism to exploit mismatches defensively. If he's settling for jumpers early, especially three-pointers, you should be happy.
Pledger is really this team's only consistent outside threat and given how he closed the season, labeling him as consistent might be a tad generous. He is a streaky shooter and someone who, when he's hot, can literally be in range the instant he steps over the half-court line. In Oklahoma's more recent games, his shot has been off like we've arguably never seen it be off before so his play will be a huge factor in the outcome of this game.
With respect to Osby, quite simply he's the heart and soul of this team. He's another transfer player, formerly of Mississippi, who has lead this team in scoring and rebounding all year. He's a guy who typically presents a significant match-up problem for most teams because he has the size and strength to score in the low post, but can also pull his defender away from the basket for a mid-range jumper or drive by them to the basket. He gets to the free throw line a lot and shoots nearly 80% when there so he'll definitely make you pay for putting him on the charity stripe.
* How does Oklahoma fare against teams that play above average defense.
I would say, probably like a lot of teams, it's a bit of a mixed bag. A lot will depend on whether or not their outside shots are falling and/or if anyone besides Pledger can offer even a hint of a threat from three point range. Working in SDSU's favor is the fact we've seen this Oklahoma team go on extended scoreless stretches in far too many games this past season. Unfortunately, they've been prone to these kind of offensive performances where it just feels like absolutely nothing can find the bottom of the basket.
Many a team this year has employed a zone defense against this Oklahoma team allowing them to help inside defensively on Osby while forcing OU's shooters to prove they can hit from the outside.
Obviously hitting some outside shots early will only help to loosen up things defensively on the inside for players like Osby and Andrew Fitzgerald, or to create driving lanes for M'Baye or Buddy Hield. But at this point, especially given how the Sooners closed out their season, it's something many of us are going to have to see before we believe it.
* Give an overview of what Oklahoma does well, and does not do well?
I'll take the latter part first if for no other reason than to vent a little. In terms of what this Oklahoma team does not do well, I can unequivocally say that would be playing with a lead. You wouldn't think most teams would struggle with something like this, but for whatever reason the Sooners have been absolutely terrible playing from ahead this year.
They've blown multiple double digit leads in games they would eventually go on to lose, most notably their game in Austin -- against the hated Texas Longhorns -- which saw them surrender a 22 point advantage in the final eight minutes only to lose in overtime. More recently, they also blew a 12 point second half lead in their Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals game against Iowa State.
There really is no explanation for it and as ridiculous as it sounds, if you should find yourself down double digits at any point Friday evening I wouldn't be the least bit worried.
In terms of what this team does well, I'd definitely feel confident in saying they are an excellent defensive team and (given what I laid out above) I'd also say they respond well in the face of adversity. With their offensive woes I described above, they've been behind in a number of games this year but very few have they allowed to get out-of-hand. Granted, they haven't always won the type of games I'm describing but what I'm saying is they will not panic if they get behind Friday night.
And one of the primary reasons for that is their ability to defend. While they themselves can be prone to scoreless droughts, the defense they play can produce a number of those for their opponents as well. They are a quick, athletic, and deep team which allows Kruger to extend his defense out past the three point line. Admittedly, they don't have that inside presence/shot blocker who will deter opponents from going to the rim but with the help defense they play the goal is for those opportunities to be at a minimum.
* What does Oklahoma need to do get this win?
I think it's pretty simply really. They need Osby to do what he's done all season and then shoot a reasonable percentage from the outside. They don't need any one guy to be red hot necessarily, though that would certainly be ideal, but they simply cannot afford to have these 3-for-18 or 0-for-16 three point shooting performances like they have in recent weeks.
Pledger is the guy to watch early with respect to three point shooting. If his first couple go in look out, but if he misses (and misses badly as he's done recently) it could be a long night for the Sooners. He's not a guy that will quit shooting however, so he could definitely shoot himself back into the game or, obviously, continue to make things worse.
Secondary scoring, much like you've described for SDSU, will be key for this Oklahoma team. If a guy like M'Baye, Hield (whose shot has been off even since before his foot injury), and/or Sam Grooms can get into double figures then OU should be in pretty good shape.
* What is your prediction of the game?
In terms of a prediction, I'd say I am cautiously optimistic. While OU lost their most recent game to Iowa State, it wasn't a case of them playing poorly so much as another cold shooting streak coinciding with the Cyclones getting hot at just the right time. I like the fact OU has multiple defenders they can throw at Jamaal Franklin and while I certainly don't expect them to shut him down, if they can even just make things considerably more difficult for him that only helps their chances in this game. I also think both Osby and M'Baye present significantly difficult match-ups for SDSU from a defensive perspective, but I'm also much more confident in Osby to be able to exploit it than I am M'Baye.
Unless Oklahoma is just absolutely atrocious from the field, it's hard for me to see this one getting out-of-hand in either direction. I expect it to be a close, hard fought game that could easily come down to the final minutes. If I'm completely honest, my head says the Aztecs but call me a homer I suppose as I'm going with my heart on this one. I think OU's free throw shooting will (hopefully) give them an edge down the stretch and the Sooners find a way to squeak out a close one.