Last year’s game between Oklahoma and Wichita State wasn’t much of a game at all, thanks to 10 first-half threes by the Sooners in their not-as-close-as-it-looked 91-83 victory last December.
In the return trip Saturday morning, an 11 a.m. tip-off televised by ESPNU at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, WSU coach Gregg Marshall and his staff are determined to have a better game plan for the Sooners.
“Hopefully Trae Young (now with the Atlanta Hawks) will stay in the NBA and not come back for the game,” Marshall joked earlier this week.
Young, who decimated WSU’s defense for 29 points and 10 assists last season, is gone, but OU (7-1) is off to an impressive start to the season with neutral-court wins over Florida, Dayton and Notre Dame.
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After spending the last week preparing the scouting report, WSU assistant coach Isaac Brown thinks OU might be even harder to guard this season.
“I think they’re a better team,” Brown said Friday. “They don’t have the NBA superstar, but I think they’re more team-oriented and the ball moves better. It don’t stick as much. When they had Trae Young, one guy had the ball in his hands 75 percent of the time. Now the ball is being shared a lot more, so they’re tougher to guard.”
OU’s success isn’t entirely surprising. Although Young took the bulk of last season’s production with him, OU returned Christian James, Brady Manek, Rashard Odomes, Jamuni McNeace and Kristian Doolittle from last season’s rotation and added two graduate transfers in guards Aaron Calixte and Miles Reynolds.
Much like Markis McDuffie has at WSU, James has become OU’s go-to player in his senior season and is averaging 19.9 points and shooting 43 percent on three-pointers. Manek made 38 percent of his threes as a stretch-four for OU last season and snapped out of his early-season funk with five threes in OU’s win over Notre Dame on Tuesday. McNeace is a 6-foot-10 rim protector who memorably snatched two shots out of the air last year at Intrust Bank Arena.
“We’re pleased with where we’re at, but our guys understand that this is just a starting point,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “We have to keep making progress and keep improving. These are two different teams from the ones that played last season, so I’m not sure there’s a lot to be drawn from that. We’ll have to play well again to win.”
OU thrashed WSU last year with a simple pick-and-roll play where Trae Young would use a ball screen on the wing, then the screener would roll down the middle of the lane forcing help defense. With his defender preoccupied by helping on the roller, Manek would pop to the abandoned space at the top of the key and stroke in wide-open threes.
OU won’t have the same weapon that it had last year in Young, but the Sooners are still shooting 39 percent from the three-point line with James, Manek and Calixte being the main threats.
“They run a lot of the same actions that they ran last year,” Brown said. “We want to do a better job guarding it this year. With Markis, we’re able to guard those stretch-fours a lot better because he’s really a three guarding the four so he can guard those guys a lot better.”
Last year teams with bigs who could shoot took advantage of WSU playing a traditional lineup with two post players. It was difficult for them to guard out to the three-point line. Since WSU has switched to playing a stretch four itself with McDuffie, its defense has also improved.
Jaime Echenique has also been an excellent defender in the pick and roll, giving WSU an upgrade in athleticism to cover opposing bigs who want to pop out and shoot threes.
“We’re just way more athletic this year,” said McDuffie, who did not play in last year’s game. “We have a lot more guys this year who can move side to side and up and down and get out to the shooter.”
WSU’s game might be determined by which offense shows up.
Will it be the one that struggled mightily in a 57-53 loss to Davidson or will WSU be able to produce the good offensive showings it had against Providence (1.21 points per possession) and Alabama (1.25) on neutral courts?
While this game is technically considered a true road game for WSU, it remains to be seen how much of a home-court advantage OU will have on Saturday. It’s still football season for OU fans with the Sooners in the College Football Playoff and the basketball team only drew an estimated 3,700 fans in its last home game.
For WSU, its a chance to extend its winning streak to three and capture a top-50 win on the road.
“It would be a huge win for us,” Brown said. “That’s probably a NCAA Tournament team and an experienced one returning six guys off a NCAA team and adding two grad transfers. That would be a huge confidence-booster for us.”