A year ago, the story on the Oklahoma Sooners was Trae Young. If you watched ESPN at all during last year’s college basketball season, you heard all about him. Trae was fantastic, but the team was average. They were a 10-seed, lost their first round game, and finished the year ranked 48th by KenPom.
By winning their first round game this season, they’ve already outpaced last year’s squad. That was their 20th win, the first time since 2016 that they won 20 games. They went to the Final Four that year. They’re currently 36th on KenPom.
That first round win, by the way, was a dominating 95-72 affair over Ole Miss. It was 12-0 less than three minutes in and the Sooners never looked back. They generated 10 steals, despite not being a high-pressure defensive team. They also shot nearly 60% from the field, despite not being a great shooting team. Far too many of those buckets were easy.
Much of last year’s team returns, but with Young gone, roles have changed. The leading scorer is Christian James, a guard who finished second last year. He’s averaging just under 15 points per game, and takes almost half (47%) his shots from downtown where he hits about 35%. He was 4-for-7 from downtown against Ole Miss in the first round. Here’s an example:
That’s good defense from Ole Miss. James was simply on fire early. The entire Sooner squad was.
James shares the wing with a couple of guys, most notably seniors Rashard Odomes and Miles Reynolds. Reynolds is a graduate transfer from Pacific (after two years at Saint Louis). The duo compliment James well, because both are slashers who do most of their damage on the inside. Odomes is just 6-for-16 from downtown on the year, but makes 55% of his two-point shots. Similarly, Reynolds shot 8-for-39 from downtown, though he’s just 48% on his twos. It’s rare, these days, to find a wing who simply doesn’t shoot the three.
Odomes is a very physical player that is very strong on the offensive glass, can finish inside, and also passes the ball well. He’s also left-handed. Figure on DeAndre Hunter getting the first crack at Odomes, but Hunter could also guard James at times, especially if James has early success. Odomes is a good defender who will also guard Hunter on the other end. Odomes’s physical play could cause trouble for Hunter, but he may not have the lateral quickness to stay with Virginia’s All-American.
With Young in the NBA, the Sooners needed a new PG. Enter Jamal Bieniemy. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because his uncle is Eric “Sleeping with” Bieniemy, an All-American RB at Colorado and currently the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs. Bieniemy is more of a combo-guard than a true PG, though he has proven to be a capable floor-leader. He leads the team in assists by a wide margin, but averages under five points per game. He’s under 40% shooting on the year, despite making 26-of-65 (40%) from downtown. He’s also a good defender with quick hands.
At 6’4 180, Bieniemy is going to be a tough cover for Kihei Clark. He’s a physical player, not the type that Clark has done well against. He’s a better shooter than Florida State’s Trent Forrest, but a similar player. Ty Jerome matches up better.
In the first round game against Gardner-Webb, Virginia had a few careless turnovers, mostly on lazy passes. That can’t happen around OU. They doesn’t force a lot of turnovers, but they had a big game in that department against Ole Miss. The Sooners are not a good shooting team, and get a lot of their scoring in the paint. Virginia has the defenders to slow that kind of offense down, so giving up easy buckets could help OU stay in the game. Taking care of the basketball will be key for the Cavaliers.
Up front, the Sooner have a complementary duo. First is 6’7 Kristian Doolittle, an undersized ‘4’, who excels at getting to the rim. He’s quick for a big and does all his damage down low. He’s attempted just four treys all year, making zero. He did make 17-of-43 (40%) as a freshman, so he’s capable, but he’s attempted just eight in the past two years. He’s the leading rebounder on the team, and the third leading scorer. He’s also a pretty good defender, capable of guarding post players and bigger perimeter players. Doolittle’s physicality gets him to the FT line a lot and he’s a 78% shooter. Against Ole Miss, he had 19 points and 15 rebounds.
This is an example from Friday. What kind of defense is that? Ole Miss’ Dominik Olejniczak seems surprised that Doolittle is shooting, and doesn’t even contest. He’s not going to miss an 8-foot jumper, but he won’t get such easy looks against the Hoos’ interior defense. Figure on Doolittle seeing a lot of Braxton Key.
Key is much more mobile than the seven-foot Olejniczak and is a very good interior defender. Key won’t start though, which means Jack Salt likely gets the early assignment against Doolittle. The problem there is that Doolittle has far too much quickness for Salt.
This is Doolittle’s game. He’s really more of a face-up guy, who likes to put the ball on the floor and get into the paint. Salt will play off, daring him to take the outside shot which he seems uncomfortable with. Doolittle’s also a good interior passer.
Next to Doolittle is 6’9 Brady Manek. Manek is a ‘stretch’ big man who can step out and shoot the three. He’s taken nearly half his shots from downtown, making 36%. He’s a bit undersized, at just 220 pounds, but he can block shots and is solid on the glass.
Gotta find him in transition. With transition defense, the bigger guys tend to go defend the rim, while the guards are on the outside. Manek has the size to shoot over those guards. Luckily, Virginia doesn’t give up a lot of fast breaks. They’re also outstanding at finding their man in transition.
Diakite has the ability to stay with Manek on the perimeter, and is also a better interior player. Diakite was outstanding on Friday, and if he’s having the same success inside, OU might put Doolittle on him. Diakite won’t have the same quickness advantage that he does against Manek, but he’ll be able to shoot over the smaller Doolittle.
This is what Diakite was doing on Friday. He just powers the ball through and over the smaller defender. That’s what Virginia fans have been waiting for. And Mamadi can also step outside and shoot the ball. He doesn’t do it very often, but he’s 5-for-12 (42%) on the year. That ability could keep Manek (or Doolittle) away from the paint, opening up driving lanes for Ty Jerome and DeAndre Hunter. Jay Huff, for what it’s worth, is also a big who can shoot. We should see big games from Huff and/or Diakite.
Outside of James and Manek, the Sooners really aren’t a threat from the outside. Backup PG Aaron Calixte, a graduate transfer from Maine, has made 34 threes but his minutes have really dropped off as Bieniemy has come on. Even in the blowout, Calixte played just 11 minutes against Ole Miss and scored one point.
Gardner-Webb was a team that liked to shoot the three, and they did it well. Virginia is the No. 1 team in the nation in three point defense, and the Runnin’ Bulldogs made 39% of their attempts. OU, on the other hand, ranks 316th nationally in percentage of shots attempted from downtown. That’s good, because they are 168th in three point percentage. Virginia has three high-volume shooters, all of whom all shooter better than anybody on OU. If this were a three-point shooting contest, Virginia would have it in the bag.
Of course, Virginia’s interior defense is also outstanding. One of the keys I noted for the first round game was points in the paint. Virginia gave up 24 points in the paint, 12 below Gardner-Webb’s season average. OU averages 32 points in the paint, 36 in wins and just 27 in losses. They won one game all year (against Notre Dame) when they were outscored in the paint.
With Salt and Key down low, along with Diakite and Huff, Virginia seems well-suited to slowing down the Sooners offense. That might mean a different rotation that Tony Bennett has been using of late. With big wings plus the front-court duo, Tony may need to have Hunter, Key and one of the big men on the floor. Otherwise, the Hoos could find themselves outmatched down low.
OU’s defense is very good, though like their offense, it’s better on the inside. Quicker guards who can shoot have hurt them. For example, Marial Shayok dropped 21 points on 8-for-13 shooting. Kyle Guy struggled against GWU, largely because the Bulldogs focused their defense on him. Oklahoma really doesn’t have anybody who can chase Guy around all game. James is the obvious candidate, but if he’s expending tons of energy guarding Kyle, he may not have enough left to be the offensive weapon the Sooners need.
It’ll be interesting to see how Tony Bennett handles this game. Clark has started 11 of the past 13 games. But this doesn’t really seem to be a good matchup for him. OU is a big team and Tony could match up to that. Did Mamadi Diakite’s outstanding game on Friday earn him a start? A lineup of Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, DeAndre Hunter, Braxton Key and Diakite/Huff seems to check all the boxes. It can match up with OU’s size, defend, and score both inside and out.
Virginia will have to play better than they did against GWU to move on. However, based on style, this seems like a pretty good matchup for the Hoos.