NORMAN, Okla. – There's little question that guard play is going to determine how far Oklahoma goes this season.
After losing most of their size from last year's NCAA tournament team, the Sooners return a trio of sophomore guards who will be expected to carry the load — especially on offense.
Isaiah Cousins, Buddy Hield and Je'lon Hornbeak all saw significant playing time last season, earning a combined 40 starts between them.
"They've all grown significantly," Sooners coach Lon Kruger said Monday at the team's annual media day. "That period between freshman year and sophomore year oftentimes is one of big change. Coming out of high school, you're not real sure what to expect and after going through Big 12 basketball for a year, you can focus differently on preparation for the second year--how fast the game is and how big and strong the opponents are and I think you work a little harder. All three have done a nice job."
The roles of each, though, will shift this season as the Sooners look to play faster. Hornbeak split time at both guard spots last season but will be expected to handle the point guard spot primarily.
"Last year, I really struggled at being a true point guard," Hornbeak said. "Now I feel like I've developed in that sense--just letting everything come naturally, taking what defenses give me."
With freshman Jordan Woodard in the guard rotation behind Hornbeak, Cousins will be freed up to play the wing.
"I just feel more free on the wing because you can just play hard," Cousins said. "At point, you have to control everything on the team. My role is to play-make and score off the ball and try to do a little bit of everything."
Hield was the most electric of the three offensively last season, when he was healthy. He broke into the starting lineup by late December and gave the Sooners an immediate lift on both ends before suffering a broken foot in mid-February. He returned late in the year but struggled to find his offensive rhythm.
He suffered a setback just before the Sooners left for a five-game European trip in August but both Hield and Kruger said the foot isn't a concern. Hield tweaked his shot over the offseason.
"I changed my form a little bit trying to have a better arc on the ball," Hield said. "I always love being a shooter and as I transitioned from high school to college, I didn't really have confidence in my shot so adding a few touches helps me get back my confidence."
The Sooners were picked fifth in the Big 12 by the conference's coaches.
Kruger said the spot was understandable but said the league was wide open outside of Kansas and Oklahoma State at the top and Baylor just below the favorites. Although there are likely to be growing pains early, Hornbeak expects the Sooners to build off of last year even with the new front-court players being broken in.
"When I first got here, the goal was to make the NCAA tournament," Hornbeak said. "Nobody here had ever made it. Now that most of us have been there, we want to get back there and we know what it takes and we want to go further than just the first and second round."