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‘Hopefully it’s somewhat normal': Sooner basketball to start practice for upcoming season, despite challenges of pandemic

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Brady Manek

Junior forward Brady Manek during the game against Baylor on Feb. 18.

Back in March, then-junior guard Austin Reaves scored 41 points, leading the Sooners to an 18-point second-half comeback against TCU, essentially securing OU a spot in March Madness.

Just a few days later, the NCAA canceled its remaining winter and spring championships.

Now in October, over 200 days after Reaves’ historic performance, OU held its first press conference prior to the official start of practice on Oct. 14. Coach Lon Kruger and his players are finally able to see the floor again and are hoping for a complete season, despite the challenges of COVID-19.

“It honestly sucked to get the season cut short last year,” Reaves said. “But it's been a pandemic and there's not much we could do to change that. So you just gotta find that motivation, and just keep pushing forward for the next year.”

Reaves is hoping to build off his performance from last season, and his heightened leadership as a senior will be beneficial to helping the Sooners maneuver in a season with a pandemic. 

But college basketball proves to be a different challenge from a sport like football. Basketball teams like OU only have 16 players on their entire roster, so COVID-19 contact tracing could virtually wipe out an entire team. Luckily for college basketball, schools around the country could possibly benefit from the successes and failures of playing sports during a pandemic. 

When asked about the primary challenges of the season, Kruger said “staying healthy is probably the most obvious one.” The Sooners have had zero positive tests so far this year. 

“From a roster standpoint, there’s going to be some games perhaps with different looking rosters from one opponent to the next,” Kruger said. 

Kruger will likely give more minutes to a couple new faces to possibly help the depth for his team with potential players missing due to COVID-19 in the future. 

Kruger credited sophomore forwards Victor Iwuakor and Jalen Hill, senior Kur Kuath and redshirt freshman Rick Issanza, who he says has made “tons of progress.”

The quartet of inexperienced forwards will be important to depth for the Sooners, and will hopefully replace some of All-Big 12 First-Teamer Kristian Doolittle’s production.

Also, the Sooners have the potential for two transfer guards to gain eligibility in juniors Umoja Gibson and Elijah Harkless. 

Kruger said he expects a ruling on their eligibility from the NCAA shortly. Their eligibility could help the Sooners depth a lot, especially during the uncertainty of a season and with a limited number of guards on the roster, after two-year starter Jamal Bienemy transferred to UTEP. 

Bienemy’s departure paves a path for De’Vion Harmon, a former blue-chip prospect who improved down the stretch last season, to handle the ball more and further his development. 

“He’s really improved physically,” Kruger said about Harmon this offseason. “He’s improved shooting the ball (and) he’s done a nice job.”

And for seniors Brady Manek and Reaves, they’re excited to just build on their play from last season, while also staying safe and getting a season in. 

“I get pretty worried every week whenever the (COVID-19) tests come in,” Manek said. “At this point (in) time we don’t want any of that because we’re getting closer to games and real practices. It’s a lot of pressure for the players.”

But despite the challenges, they’re staying optimistic. 

“I’m glad we’re back,” Manek said. “I’m glad we’re ready to start playing games and train for the season start.”

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