Oklahoma opens post-Trae Young era with new faces
The Trae Young era has come and gone at Oklahoma, leaving a big hole for the Sooners to fill.
It will likely be a group effort.
As a freshman last season, Young became the first player to lead the nation in scoring and assists in a season and he is now playing for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. Running the point for Oklahoma this season will likely be a mix that includes Aaron Calixte, a graduate transfer who scored 1,125 points for Maine; Miles Reynolds, who averaged 13.3 points per game for Pacific last season; and freshman Jamal Bieniemy, a four-star recruit.
“I don’t know that you find one player to do that, this group is going to do it as a group,” coach Lon Kruger said. “I don’t know that anyone is going to lead in scoring and assists as Trae did, but this group is motivated and they are showing they can get good results.”
Most of the rest of the team returns, so hopes remain high. Guard Christian James started every game last season and averaged 11.9 points and 4.4 rebounds. Forward Brady Manek averaged 10.2 points last season and made 59 3-pointers. Center Jamuni McNeace, who split time with Khadeem Lattin last season, was second on the team with 46 blocks. Guard Rashard Odomes averaged 7.2 points per game.
“In the college game, they’ve been through a lot of minutes,” Kruger said. “They know what lies ahead. They know how tough the challenge is.”
Oklahoma opens the regular season Nov. 9 at Texas-Rio Grande Valley.
MAIN MAN MANEK
Manek’s freshman season was largely overshadowed by Young, but he had a very solid first year. The 6-foot-9 forward was Oklahoma’s No. 3 scorer last season with 10.2 points per game. He scored 21 points against Wichita State, 22 against Northwestern State, 28 against Oklahoma State and 22 against TCU last season. He shot 47 percent from the field and 38 percent from 3-point range for the season. Manek should be even better this year.
“He’s gotten 15, 20 pounds heavier since he arrived on campus, and he’s bigger and stronger because of the greater bulk, playing with confidence and doing a good job,” Kruger said. “Last year, he was thought of as a stand-still shooter. Starting to put the ball on the floor, starting to post-up, always been a good rebounder, blocked shots more than expected. So he’s got a bright future.”
The coaches have picked the Sooners to finish eighth in the 10-team conference, something that doesn’t seem to bother them.
“Those early weeks of practice probably the most enjoyable time of the year because everyone is motivated for all the right reasons and not concerned about playing time,” Kruger said. “They’re not concerned about anything that’s been written or printed. They’re concerned about getting better every day in practice and competing in a very healthy way.”
Kruger is still going at age 66 and shows no signs of slowing down. He’s the first Division I coach to take five different schools to the NCAA Tournament and the only coach to win an NCAA Tournament game with five different programs. He reached the Final Four in 1994 (Florida) and 2016 (Oklahoma) and owns the 10th-most victories (619) among active Division I head coaches. Last season, he led the Sooners to the NCAA Tournament again.
Forward Kristian Doolittle averaged 9.1 points and 6.2 rebounds two seasons ago as a freshman. Last season, he missed the early part of the season because of grades, and by the time he returned, Manek was playing well. He could help the Sooners if he can regain his freshman form.
The Sooners face a rugged non-conference slate that includes games against Florida, Notre Dame, Wichita State, USC, Creighton, Northwestern, Vanderbilt and either Stanford or Wisconsin.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .