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OKLAHOMA CITY – For the first time since coach Lon Kruger arrived in 2011, high expectations surround the Oklahoma program.
Starters Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler and Jordan Woodard are back from a team that finished last season second in the Big 12 and landed a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. The conference's coaches have picked the Sooners to finish third in the Big 12.
Kruger said he's aware of what people are saying — and will remind his team that success is earned.
"What we hope to get is guys playing as close to their potential each night, each game, each possession, if you will," he said. "If we do that, then everything else kind of takes care of itself. But easier said than done. That's a big challenge, and with the talk out there, the expectations and the media attention, all that is different, and we have to handle that well."
As successful as they were, the Sooners lost to No. 12 seed North Dakota State in their opening NCAA tournament game.
"Anytime you get to the tournament it is great," Kruger said. "Still, when you lose, it becomes a motivating factor in the offseason. This group understands that and they want to do more and go farther."
Here are some things to watch for the Sooners, who start their season at home Nov. 16 against Southeastern Louisiana:
THOMAS' ELIGIBILITY: TaShawn Thomas, a senior transfer from Houston, is appealing to the NCAA to become eligible this season instead of sitting out a year. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 15.4 points and 8.1 rebounds last season, and started all 96 games he played for the Cougars. He would provide Oklahoma with a low-post scorer — he shot 59 percent from the field last season.
REPLACING CLARK: The Sooners lost Cameron Clark, their No. 2 scorer from last season, who averaged 15.6 points per game and made it easier for the others to operate. Hield, a preseason All-Big 12 selection who led the team with 16.5 points per game last season, bulked up in the offseason and will attack more, rather than focusing so much on outside shooting.
SPANGLER'S EVOLUTION: Reigning Big 12 rebounding champion Ryan Spangler is back for his junior year after averaging 9.6 points and 9.3 rebounds last season. He focused on refining his offensive skills in the offseason and expects to score more.
Spangler, a tough, intense and emotional player whose energy lifts the team, also has embraced his role as the team's vocal leader. If he adds a more polished offensive attack, he becomes a likely candidate for postseason honors.
BAHAMAS-BOUND: Oklahoma will play in the Battle 4 Atlantis on Nov. 26-28, starting with UCLA, then getting Butler or North Carolina, and followed by Florida, Georgetown, UAB or Wisconsin. The tournament will give the Sooners a chance to make an early impression and get some key wins to position themselves for NCAA tournament seeding down the road.
Oklahoma's nonconference schedule also has them at Creighton on Nov. 19 and at home Dec. 5 against Missouri.
DEFENSE FIRST: The Sooners ranked seventh in the nation in scoring last season, but occasionally lacked focus on defense. They believe they can be special if their defensive intensity matches their scoring prowess.
"We are tremendously better on defense," Spangler said. "We are not where we need to be, but we have a couple weeks to do that before the first game. That will be the deciding factor on where this team goes."
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .