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.
“But the seniors are doing it, and that's good to see.”
It's difficult not to feel good for the seniors. These are many of the same guys who've been lauded this season for taking lesser roles than they had in seasons past, for not complaining about it, for being great teammates. Now, they're getting rewarded for hanging in there.
“Sometimes, Coach likes to go with experience, guys that have been there,” senior standout Romero Osby said. “It's no knock on the freshmen or anybody else. It's just the fact that Coach, I think he's comfortable with the older guys being out there sometimes.”
But are the Sooners better for it?
Kruger is always talking about his team having room to improve. But maybe it's time to start facing facts about the ceiling that this team has.
“We need more from everybody,” Osby said. “From the managers on up, everybody has a part in this.”
No doubt about that, but unlike a lot of NCAA Tournament teams that will ride their seniors, these Sooners need to think about who was playing when they were at their best.
The high point of the year came with that home victory against Kansas. In that game, Hield played 28 minutes, Cousins 26 and Hornbeak 16. By contrast, Grooms played 10 minutes, Cam Clark 14 and Andrew Fitzgerald 17. The freshmen were bringing great energy, great enthusiasm and top-notch play while the veterans came off the bench in short spurts.
The Sooners need to get back to that mix.
It comes with risks, of course. Play the older guys, and you know what you're going to get. Play the younger guys, and while you have the upside of potential, you also never knowing what freshman-like thing they'll do.
Still, this team was riding highest with its freshmen playing a bigger role. As much as Hield's surgically repaired foot allows, the Sooners need to return to that formula.
Will Kruger do it?
He didn't completely rule out more playing time for the freshmen.
“Je'lon's been giving us consistent minutes,” he said. “Isaiah gave us some good stretches versus Iowa State. We probably need to get him in the ballgame earlier and a little bit more.”
That's the spirit, Coach. Let the upside of these freshman carry you as long as it can.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.