Sunday evening in Oklahoma’s 77-70 win over West Virginia, Sam Grooms played a vital role in the victory. He didn’t start, and his stats aren’t exactly eye-popping, but his presence on the court was crucial nonetheless. Grooms finished with four assists and zero turnovers in just 24 minutes of play. He came in at a time in which the Sooners were trailing, and helped pace the game, control the tempo and settle down the offense.
In the same game, forward Andrew Fitzgerald also played a big part in the win. Like Grooms, Fitzgerald didn’t start, but he ended up with nine points on 4-6 shooting in 23 minutes. Perhaps his biggest contribution however came with about seven minutes left in the game, when he calmly knocked down a baseline jumper to halt a West Virginia run and give the Sooners the go ahead bucket. It was arguably riding the momentum created off that basket that the Sooners sparked a surge and pulled away with game in hand.
If you haven’t figured it out by now (or maybe you just read the title) there’s a common theme between these two unsung heroes. Both are seniors—experienced, smart, talented, seniors. It was the smart, composed play of Fitzgerald and Grooms that saved the game for the Sooners down the stretch Sunday. But Oklahoma’s senior leadership doesn’t stop with Fitzgerald and Grooms. Other seniors have stepped up into big time roles this season.
Despite a quiet game Sunday, sharpshooter Steven Pledger has also had his share of positive influences in late game situations this season. Also a senior, Pledger stepped up in a game in Arlington a week ago, hitting a dagger from downtown in the waning minutes to put Oklahoma up and help them escape with a win in hand. With just a minute to play in Thursday’s opening game at the Old Spice Classic, Pledger showed he has ice in his veins, coolly knocking down another three in the midst of a 16-4 UTEP run. After that basket, UTEP scored just one point and the Sooners coasted to a victory.
Romero Osby is arguably the leader of this team in the early season, on both the stat sheet with 11.2 PPG and 7.8 RPG, as well as in-game situations. The vocal forward can often be seen giving advice in between whistles to teammates, and if that’s not enough his intense play is certainly leadership by example.
Of course Oklahoma isn’t exactly a veteran-laden team. With an influx of young talent coming in this offseason, the future really is now for this Sooner team; still, there’s just the right mix of young talent and veteran leadership to make this team successful. In order for that to happen though, the experience of the savvy veterans is critical.
As cliché as it sounds, freshmen are going to make freshmen mistakes. They’re going to turn the ball over at the most inopportune times, they’re going to take some shots that are head-scratchers, they’re going to make you flat want to pull your hair out. However, if you have veterans to fall back on as a cushion, you can still play smart enough basketball to salvage a few wins while getting the young guys some valuable experience. That’s exactly what the Sooners have been doing so far this season.
The Sooners are starting two freshmen (Jelon Hornbeak and Isaiah Cousins) and giving significant time to another (Buddy Hield). Though the game may start with the freshmen on the floor, often times it may end with the seniors. If the new starters start to get too careless, former starters Andrew Fitzgerald, Sam Grooms and Cameron Clark are waiting anxiously on the bench for a chance to show them how it’s done. This allows for the freshmen to gain in-game experience, while also giving them a chance to learn from guys who have been doing this longer than them.
With the seniors in the game everything is simply more efficient. On offense the passes are crisper and on target, mistakes are few to none, the looks are cleaner, Oklahoma is playing smarter basketball. In turn, the Sooners have a better chance of winning the game because of the experience of their seniors.
Diversity is another element that makes this group great; they can do a little bit of everything. Each senior has a different skillset; Grooms is a facilitator, Pledger is a sharpshooter, Osby is a physical presence in the paint, Fitzgerald is a scorer in the low post with a mid-range game. Still, all are united by one factor: experience.
Osby, Pledger, Fitzgerald and Grooms are all vital to the team in the same aspect. These guys have seen it all, from the good, the bad, all the way down to the ugly. They are familiar with the ropes.
That’s why Oklahoma is already showing, and will likely continue to show improvement this season.
That improvement will be on display tonight when the Sooners take on Oral Roberts inside the Mabee Center. In a road environment, the Sooners will be tested, but should feel comfortable knowing it has the aforementioned to fall back on if the game gets tight.
When the game is on the line, it’s nice to know you can put someone out there who knows the scene, and who you can count on to execute. A popular dogma in college basketball is that experience wins game, and if that holds true, Oklahoma is in store for a solid season, thanks in part to the old, reliable seniors.
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