Heading into the 2012-13 season, Steven Pledger was expected to play a vital role in the rejuvenation of the Oklahoma Sooners basketball program. So far he has delivered, just not in the ostentatious manner that he anticipated to.
To give an idea of just how good Pledger was supposed to be this season, he was the leading returning scorer in the Big 12 conference, averaging 16.2 points per contest the previous year. His name was being thrown around as a potential member of the All-Big 12 team. The senior was poised for a career season in his last year as a Sooner, as a team leader.
Unfortunately for Pledger, it didn’t all work out that way.
The sharpshooting guard has seen a decrease in production this season, dropping to just 11.6 PPG and seeing a 5.1% decrease in his three point field goal percentage from last season. He has shown glimpses of the star potential many thought he possessed this season, but we have yet to see the Pledger we became accustomed to over the years. The Pledger who dropped 38 points on Iowa State his sophomore season, or the Pledger who torched Houston for 31 last season.
At first glance, it definitely appears that Pledger has regressed tremendously from his junior to senior season, however, upon further inspection, it’s clear the stats don’t tell the whole story. With the influx of talent on this year’s roster, Pledger’s minutes have fallen from 32.9 to just 27.8 as depth has increased. The emergence of Buddy Hield (8.6 PPG) and Je’lon Hornbeak (5.5 PPG) as key components of the team have affected Pledger’s numbers greatly. But it turned out to be what’s best for the team.
The Sooners are sitting at 18-8 (9-5) and are currently tied for 4th place in the Big 12. They are projected to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in the post-Blake Griffin era in nearly every mock bracket. None of this is possible without Hield or Hornbeak, who have been crucial to the success, and Pledger’s numbers taking a hit. I think Pledger knows this. Being in a losing environment (42-52 record in his first three seasons) for so long, he became hungry for success, for victories. So this season, in his last chance to gain them, he sacrificed for the benefit of his team.
Thus, Pledger still has it. I don’t think he ever lost it. He had a few bad games no doubt, but mostly he took one for the greater good of the team. His impact still was and is felt though, and is reflected in the Sooners record. As the regular season nears its end, he has been called to step up. Oklahoma needs his leadership, his experience and his scoring in these final few games. So far, Pledger has answered. The “swish” sound the net makes every time he drops a three pointer through the hoop is a reminder that he is still a viable threat to score the ball. He is valuable beyond measure to this team.
Late in the season with a variety of factors in play (Buddy Hield’s injury, postseason push, etc.), this has become evident. Pledger has turned up the intensity. In the three games since Hield’s untimely injury, Pledger has gone for 18, 22 and 19 points respectively. He has shot 56.4% from the floor and 52.2% from three in those games. He recognized the need for him to step up, and did so accordingly.
Pledger isn’t the only senior who has taken on a more arduous role late in the year, however. With time ticking down on the regular season, Sam Grooms has also been asked to do a little bit more for the Sooners.
In a year where there hasn’t been a clear starting point guard—Lon Kruger has rotated from Isaiah Cousins, to Grooms, to Hornbeak, to back to Cousins—it appears the Sooners may have finally settled on Grooms.
Like Pledger, Grooms didn’t start out the season so hot. After starting all of last season, he was benched for Cousins to start the year, and after averaging six assists per game last season, has averaged only 2.6 this year. He also struggled to put the ball in the hoop, but that was nothing new; Grooms had never been much of a scorer, with just 6.7 points per game and 35% shooting the prior season. He has played in every game but one for the Sooners, but usually in limited intervals. Nevertheless, his impact was still felt, and any time the opposing team turned up the pressure Kruger would call on Grooms.
Lately, Grooms has also increased his intensity a couple notches.
In the last three games Grooms has added a whole new dimension to the Sooner offense, apparently developing a scorer’s mentality overnight. Grooms scored a combined 54 points in that three-game stretch, nearly matching his total of 55 on the season. He has surpassed his career high a total of two times within the past week, scoring 18 at Oklahoma State and turning around to net 23 against Baylor.
Grooms’ newfound scoring touch, combined with his playmaking ability— he is easily the best distributor on the team—have made him the obvious choice to run the Oklahoma offense. He’s been steady there too, managing 13 assists to just five turnovers in the three games.
Both Pledger and Grooms have been vital to this team all season but have stepped up even more in the midst of adversity for the Sooners, coming on strong since the injury of Hield and during a crucial stretch to close the season.
With the recent top-notch play by the two, it’s easy to see their worth. Oklahoma will definitely be dancing in March and it’s hard to say they would be without these two. How far they go may also come down in some part, to the play of the savvy seniors.
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