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Oklahoma basketball: Freshmen's time has arrived

COMMENTARY — The Sooners are going through an inconsistent stretch that coincides with reduced playing time for their youngsters. The NCAA Tournament is the right place for the freshmen to see more minutes.
by Jenni Carlson Published: March 19, 2013

NORMAN — Lon Kruger has a dilemma.

For the past few weeks, the Oklahoma coach has depended less on his youthful up-and-comers and more on his veteran players. Their minutes are up. Their impact is, too.

“Good to see those older guys step in there,” Kruger said.

Problem is, good results haven't always followed.

The Sooners enter the NCAA Tournament having lost three of their last five games and four of their last eight. It has been the team's most inconsistent stretch of the season.

So, should Kruger stick with his older players or go back to the younger ones, the guys who were playing the most when the Sooners were at their best?

Against San Diego State on Friday, OU's postseason hopes depend on the answer to that question.

Let's start with some numbers.

This eight-game stretch of inconsistency includes everything from the Bedlam game in Stillwater through the Big 12 Tournament. That the stretch coincides with the games since freshman point guard Buddy Hield fractured his foot is no surprise. He was a starter, and when he got hurt, it threw the Sooners for a loop.

“Buddy was playing a really active role before his injury,” Kruger said. “He hasn't come back to that level, understandably.”

Hield has played the past three games but has averaged a little over 14 minutes a game.

“He takes three weeks off,” Kruger said. “You don't expect (a high level of play) to return right away.”

Most of Hield's minutes have gone to Sam Grooms. In this eight-game stretch, the senior point guard has played at least 30 minutes in every game.

Those minutes have largely come at the expense of Je'lon Hornbeak. Even though the freshman guard has been in the starting lineup for every game since Hield's injury, he has played more than his 22.4-minute-a-game average only three times.

Isaiah Cousins has seen his minutes go down even more late in the season. The freshman guard only averaged a little over nine minutes a game over the past six games.

It's easy to see why Kruger would lean more on his veterans late in the season. There's comfort in playing older guys. You know what they can do as well as what they can't do, and any coach likes having as much certainty as possible in the lineup that they're putting on the floor.

Kruger, though, says the shift in playing time isn't about his comfort level.

“Not so much,” he said. “It's just based on who's getting results. If the younger guys were getting results ... ”

Kruger, always the optimist, stopped himself from saying anything unkind and didn't finish the statement he started.

Continue reading this story on the...

by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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