In case you haven’t got the memo, they’re playing basketball in Norman now. In a state spoiled with the superb NBA talent and extraordinary success, college hoops has taken a backseat. Quietly, Lon Kruger has used the little breathing room he has to piece together what appears to be a team with a legitimate chance at an NCAA berth.
Oklahoma is 3-0 in conference play for the first time since the 08-09 season, when the Blake Griffin led Sooners made the Elite Eight. Right now only two other teams in the Big 12 remain unbeaten, Kansas and Kansas State. The fact that Oklahoma can even be grouped with those two squads after such an abysmal three year stretch of basketball is astounding, yet absolutely real. They are reeling, on a five game winning streak and having won those games by an average margin of 15.6 points. Their latest victim, Texas Tech, fell by 18 points at the Lloyd Noble Center with the Sooners leading nearly the whole way.
In the midst of this Sooner surge, and one of the key forces behind it is a budding star in Buddy Hield.
A relative novice to the college landscape, the freshman got his chance to shine after taking on Isaiah Cousins’ starting role. And boy did he ever.
In his first game as a starter, Hield didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard. In fact, he did the complete opposite, scoring just five points on 2-7 shooting. What he did do though, was play with a passion. He set the tone, provided an energy boost for the Sooners on the defensive end with four steals and got his teammates involved for a career high seven assists.
Improvement hasn’t been limited to just Hield however. The infectious effort he plays with has given his team a renewed sense of identity. Since he has entered the lineup, the Sooners have been a more efficient team. The ball movement has improved, rebounding has been more consistent and defense has been more active. Most importantly though, they have yet to lose.
Go down the list of games, and it’s easy to see Hield’s impact can be felt in a variety of ways. Eight points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals versus West Virginia. 15 points, four rebounds, five assists in bedlam. 16 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals in the Sooners most recent triumph over Texas Tech. He is all over the court.
His multi-skill set is one of the reason he has been such a valuable asset to the Sooner run. He’s quick enough to grab a steal on defense, where he is relentless, and finish in transition, strong enough to take it to the hoop in traffic, a good enough shooter to step out and knock down a three, and has good enough vision to find out who is open when he’s not. He doesn’t just play basketball, he plays Buddy ball. What’s scary is, still being in his freshman campaign, Hield’s room to learn is fairly large, and it’s a pretty good possibility he hasn’t reached the apex of his abilities.
One thing with Hield that can’t be stressed enough is his incredible sense of awareness. If there’s a loose ball, bet Hield will be among the first to get there. He is constantly prowling the passing lanes for the perfect opportunity to pounce. He is quick in transition and won’t shy away from contact if it means a chance to score. If there’s a play to be made, Hield can be counted on to make it.
Evidence of this is not hard to find. Look no further than his five-points-in-a-matter-of-seconds spectacle from the other night, in which he knocked down a three then quickly stole the inbounds pass and made the layup sending the Lloyd Noble crowd into a frenzy. That one play sums up Hield perfectly. He’s a hustler, and he is going to be imperative of Oklahoma’s success this season.
Including this Saturday when Oklahoma travels to Manhattan to take on a ranked Kansas State team featuring Rodney McGruder. The Sooners swept K-State last season, but this year both teams have seen facelifts, including the emergence of Hield for Oklahoma. Containing the Wildcats leading scorer will be no easy task, but the responsibility will likely be at least partially passed on to Hield. It may seem risky, assigning such a crucial job to a freshmen, but Hield has shown he is ready for it.
Of course, Hield’s importance goes way beyond just tomorrow’s game. If Buddy continues to play at this level, the Sooners have a real shot at the NCAA tournament. Amidst all the ifs and buts however, one thing remains clear: Buddy ball is a system for success, and Norman is only seeing the beginning of it.
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