By Clay Horning
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — It was not what Sam Grooms said so much as how he said it Monday afternoon at Oklahoma men’s basketball media day.
Grooms was asked what the Sooner newcomers bring to practice.
There are a couple of walk-ons— C.J. Cole and Steven Noworyta — and they’re probably doing a heck of a job, because that is the way of the walk-on. Still, “the newcomers,” really, are freshmen Isaiah Cousins, Buddy Heild and Je’Lon Hornbeak and preseason Big 12 newcomer of the year Amath M’Baye.
This is what Grooms said:
“It’s a lot. They bring intensity every day. Sometimes, when you’re younger, you want to do things to impress the coaches and they do that every day.”
But the telling part of the moment was this big smile Grooms had as he heard the question and launched into his answer.
It said so much more.
Like it’s hard to keep up with these guys. Like the veterans may have the experience, but they don’t have what these guys have. Like maybe you just have to be there to understand because practice is a completely different deal. It’s different. Things have changed.
If there’s a media day image (or the description of an image) Sooner roundball fans might want to take with them, that’s about as good as it gets. Grooms’ smile gives teeth to the narrative that will be making the rounds this season, the one that has the Sooners headed back to the NCAA tournament.
That was coach Lon Kruger’s message Monday afternoon.
“The opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament is the goal of every player and every team in the Big 12, and that should be our goal, too … That’s a realistic goal and a healthy goal,” he said. “We’re not downplaying that. That’s the goal we want our guys to have every year, and I think this year is more legitimate and more reasonable … This group should have that goal.”
It may not be a promise, but coming off a 15-16 season and a 5-13 trip through the conference, it sounds like an expectation and that has to be welcome news from a program three seasons removed from its last winner, back when Blake Griffin was a super sophomore playing his way to the top of the draft.
It would mean coming a long way in a short period of time, but it does make some sense, because the Sooners’ biggest issue last season was the way they fell apart after the half. It wasn’t that OU wasn’t good enough so much as it couldn’t be good enough for a long enough period of time.
At the time, Kruger would talk about the need to remain consistent and competitive throughout. But the truth was, the OU’s core — Steven Pledger, Romero Osby, Andrew Fitzgerald and Grooms — just didn’t have much help. The first three combined to average 41.3 points per game, while Grooms averaged 6.7 and had an assist-to-turnover ration (2.85 to 1) most point guards dream about.
Not too bad, but not good enough.
“I can think of about five or seven games where if we do the little things, we win,” Pledger said. “Win those games and the whole season’s different.”
Win five more games and the Sooners would have been 20-11. Win seven and they would have been 22-9.
So, why not turn things around? The big word Monday was “depth.” And this was “depth” in it best light (sometimes “depth” is what people talk about when nobody’s very good), when what it really means is “quality depth.”
OU believes it has it. That it will make all the difference.
“It would definitely be a disappointment,” if the Sooners fall short of March Madness,” Pledger said.
“‘Failure’ is the perfect word,” said Grooms of the possibility. “We have everything we need.”
What they have is a bunch of newcomers. But, as Kruger said, it seems “realistic,” “legitimate.”
Grooms’ smile was so big.
Clay HorningFollow me @firstname.lastname@example.org
For local news and more, subscribe to The Norman Transcript Smart Edition, or our print edition.