So it begins. Wisconsin (4-2) is entering a three-game stretch of schedule that will rival anything the Badgers will see all year when it heads to Norman to face No. 7 Oklahoma (3-0).
Instead of ramping up to face the young Badgers, the Sooners have eased into the holiday with back-to-back blowouts of McNeese State and Incarnate Word. Yet any hope that a retooling Wisconsin team could catch Oklahoma off-guard one year removed from a national title game appearance is foolhardy. Oklahoma did open its season on the road with an 84-78 win at Memphis.
Ken Pomeroy predicts this game to be one of the fastest-paced of the season for Wisconsin. Oklahoma is well-equipped for the tempo thanks to a deep bench. Ten Sooners have played at least a quarter of the available minutes so far for Lon Kruger, the Oklahoma head coach who has a 2-1 lifetime record against Bo Ryan.
Sooner star Buddy Hield will certainly be rested after the four-day layoff. Will that be a factor on Sunday? Rich DeCray from Crimson & Cream Machine stops by to share his thoughts on the matchup.
B5Q: With most of the attention on the surging Sooner football team, its run to the College Football Playoff and some quarterback concussion drama, is the basketball team flying under the radar locally right now?
Crimson & Cream Machine (Rich): Oklahoma is a football school first and foremost. Therefore all the attention continues to focus around Bob Stoops and what is happening on the gridiron. The focus magnifies itself knowing the Sooners have a shot to finish the season in the top four with one game still pending. To answer your question bluntly, the basketball program is flying under the radar and will most likely continue to until conference play starts up. But, I think most fans are aware of the basketball squad's ranking and have even set expectations for the year.
B5Q: How has Oklahoma changed since the last time these two met? Is it basically the same type of team, just a year better?
CCM: It is not the same team from a year ago. The Sooners lose a key component with Tashawn Thomas out of the equation. A transfer granted immediate eligibility, Thomas averaged 11.6 points per game on 51.9% shooting to go alongside 6.5 rebounds. Losing that type of production, much of the weight falls on an aggressive Ryan Spangler's shoulders. Hoping to pick up the slack, Lon Kruger continues to use youngsters early for experience purposes. Currently, OU looks towards young talent like Khadeem Lattin, an athletically gifted forward and Akolda Manyang, a very raw 7-footer in the paint.
As far a style of play goes, Oklahoma will continue to do much of what fans witnessed last year...a run and gun offense with an active defense employing traps in the half court and full court if called upon. Once again, expect a high energy group but this team does have the confidence the Sweet Sixteen run gave them as well.
B5Q: Wisconsin held Buddy Hield in check a year ago, so I probably don't have enough of an appreciation for his game as I should. He stayed for his senior season and has had a fantastic career. Where does Hield fit in on a list of all-time Sooner greats?
CCM: That's a very good question. The Sooners have not had the opportunity to rely on a four year player the caliber of Buddy Hield since Hollis Price played in Norman during the early 2000's. However, Oklahoma has a rich history on the hardwood dating back to players like Mookie Blaylock, Wayman Tisdale, Stacey King and moving forward to others like Blake Griffin. I certainly like to think Buddy Hield deserves to be in the conversation with those guys. But, we'll have to wait to see how this kid finishes his career before ranking him.
B5Q: Based on what you've seen so far, which freshman do you expect to have the biggest impact in the Oklahoma's rotation this year?
CCM: Easily, Rashard Odomes. Stepping on to campus and seeing this kid play for the first time, Odomes reminds me quite a bit of Buddy. Yet, Odomes may have entered as a freshman a bit ahead of where Hield was at as a freshman. While Odomes averages just 12 minutes per contest, he makes the most of the opportunity scoring 7 points per outing. We'll continue to hear this kid's name throughout the year as he improves.
B5Q: Oklahoma's two weaknesses so far appear to be turnovers and free throw shooting. Is that more of a fluke in your opinion or cause for concern?
CCM: Turnovers are a bit of a concern but I'm chalking it up to shaking the rust off. As mentioned above, Kruger likes to play inexperienced players early in the season which I believe helps to contribute to the 17 turnovers per game average. As this squad continues to gain time together, those will start to dissipate.
On the flip side of the coin, free throw shooting is a major issue. Of the ten players who have attempted a free throw, five are shooting 50% or below. I'm not sure what Kruger has up his sleeve to improve the performance at the charity stripe, but I'm hoping he implements it sooner rather than later.
B5Q: How would you rate the atmosphere in the Lloyd Noble Center? How tough has Oklahoma been at home under Kruger?
CCM: Nothing quite compares to the Blake Griffin years in terms of atmosphere but Kruger continues to plug away with open practices and meet and greets at every corner. There's no doubt the crowds have grown over the past several years. But, football is king at the University of Oklahoma and that won't change (probably) ever. With that said, the Sooners have reached 20+ wins in three of four years under Kruger. You don't hit the "magic" number without holding serve throughout the year.
B5Q: Care to make a prediction on the final score?
CCM: I think OU wins this one putting a bit of distance between the two late, 79-67.
Thanks for the great insight Rich. You can find today's guest on Twitter @RichDeCray and follow our SB Nation comrades @CCMachine for more Oklahoma info. If Wisconsin is to pull this one out, Nigel Hayes and his inexperienced wingmen in the frontcourt will all have to be on top of their games -- that means making layups fellas!
Join the Badger conversation on Facebook! Go to our Facebook page and "like" us!
For more Wisconsin basketball coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.