NORMAN — The NCAA's legislative curveballs have crippled some college baseball teams.
Few programs have rolled with the changes as well as the Sooners, who have transitioned flawlessly from power ball to small ball, big bats to big arms.
One of just seven teams posting 40 wins in each of the past four seasons, OU is positioned for another run at that lofty victory total — maybe more — behind a pair of aces, solid defense and a station-to-station offensive approach.
It's not how the Sooners rolled into Omaha in 2010, when Garrett Buechele and Co. bashed their way to the College World Series. But that way is outdated, with the NCAA's deadening of the bats forcing teams to adapt or else.
“Especially now, since the ball's not going to leave the yard, it's more important to be good at the little things,” OU coach Sunny Golloway said. “We have to get guys in scoring position. If you want to sit and wait on either of two things, that's the home run or the defense to mess up, I'd argue by saying the BBCOR bat is not going to let you wait for the home run. You're going to be old and gray.
“And two, if you're waiting on the defense to mess it up, sure, some of your opponents are going to, but those are going to be the teams you handle anyway. We're trying to prepare ourselves to beat the very good teams.
“Clearly, our goal is to get back to Omaha. I try to tell our guys every day how important skill and bunting are.”
Following the 2010 trip to Omaha, OU has been in the NCAA Tournament each of the two seasons since — despite heavy personnel losses — including a Super Regional appearance last spring.
Going into this season, which begins Friday with the opener of a four-game series at home against Hofstra, the Sooners carry the Big 12's favorite tag and a national ranking as high as No. 14 among the four polls.
Their appeal is based on those little things Golloway preaches about, but also two big assets: starting pitchers Dillon Overton and Jonathan Gray.
Two of the region's premier prospects, Overton and Gray were clutch down the stretch for the Sooners a year ago, sparking a late-season surge that carried through the Charlottesville Regional and host Virginia and just short of Omaha, with OU eventually falling in the Super Regional to South Carolina.
Overton, a left-hander with control of four pitches, finished 6-3 with a 3.15 earned run average and 126 strikeouts in 122 2/3 innings. Gray, a power right-hander, went 8-4 record with a 3.16 ERA a year ago.
Together, they represent two of the Big 12's four players on the Preseason Golden Spikes Watch List.
“We are two different kinds of guys,” Gray said, “left-handed, right-handed, two different bodies, two different kinds of pitchers. It works really well. It will throw off teams.”
Golloway believes he has another ace-quality arm in lefty Billy Waltrip, a junior college transfer who will round out the weekend rotation. Along with a set rotation, the Sooners return key parts in outfielders Max White and Matt Oberste and infielder Jack Mayfield to a lineup bolstered by several highly rated additions.
So expectations, as have become the norm, are Omaha or bust.
“I think we definitely have the pitching and defense,” Golloway said. “Scoring with these new bats is still a challenge, will always be a challenge. Our guys are doing a good job, they're working hard on the bunting game and they're working hard on getting it out of the air and to hit-and-run, keeping it simple — moving the guys up, scoring one run an inning.
“That'll be our goal, with our pitching and defense and maturity, I think we have a chance.”