NORMAN — After making the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time since 2009, Oklahoma begins practice Friday. It's been an eventful offseason for the Sooners, especially with their recent five-game trip to Belgium and France. The Sooners practice at 2 p.m. Friday at the Lloyd Noble Center practice court. Practices are open to the public. Here are five things to watch as OU gets started.
1. Will the Sooners make it back to the NCAA Tournament?
It'll be a tough proposition with so many new players on this year's team, especially in the frontcourt. OU lost forward Romero Osby, who started 62 of 63 games the last two seasons, to graduation and Amath M'Baye decided to forgo his senior season to start his professional career overseas. Those two give the Sooners more than 26 points per game to replace, just in the frontcourt. OU has a talented group of young guards returning and talent in other spots, but it might be rough going early and could be a transitional season.
2. The feet
Surrounding the trip to Europe, the Sooners lost a pair of players to foot injuries. First, sophomore guard Buddy Hield reinjured his right foot just before the team left. Hield went on the trip but was held out of action. Then Je'lon Hornbeak, another sophomore guard, suffered a stress fracture in his foot that required surgery within days of the team returning. If the Sooners are to make it back to the tournament, Hield and Hornbeak figure to be big pieces. If either injury turns into a lingering situation, the guard depth that appears to be the strength of this team could evaporate quickly.
3. The frontcourt
When healthy, there are very few questions about the Sooners' guard play. There is little experience elsewhere, though. Ryan Spangler sat out last season after playing at Gonzaga as a freshman, and D.J. Bennett, who like Spangler is 6-foot-8, also sat out. Those two saw the majority of time on the inside in Europe, as did senior Tyler Neal. Junior college transfer Keshaun Hamilton, 6-10, did not arrive in time for the trip and has some catching up to do before he finds his way into the rotation. C.J. Cole, a redshirt freshman, could be counted on for depth.
4. Who will lead?
There was little question that last season this was Osby's team. But with him gone, and just two seniors on the roster, things aren't near as clear in that department. Those seniors, Cameron Clark and Tyler Neal, didn't start at all last season. Both figure to provide depth, but the Sooners are likely to ask the sophomore guard combo of Hield and Hornbeak to shoulder more of that load.
5. Ryan Spangler
Spangler was a monster at Bridge Creek, earning state player of the year honors and averaging 29.2 points, 17.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists as a senior before heading to Gonzaga. The sophomore has drawn rave reviews for his work in practice and during the European trip and has added range to his offensive game as he gets ready for his first go-round in the Big 12.