A home game against Kansas State (7-5) on Saturday, Jan. 4 will mark the start of Big 12 play for the Sooners, who have accumulated a 9-3 nonconference record while experimenting with different lineups among nine newcomers — seven freshmen and two JUCO transfers.
Those players haven't played a Big 12 game. Only three on the roster have played significant minutes in the Big 12: junior forward Brady Manek, senior forward Kristian Doolittle and sophomore guard Jamal Bieniemy. Those three know what lies ahead: physical and meaningful basketball.
They saw a successful 11-1 nonconference record in the 2018-19 season turn into an 8-10 Big 12 record, including a five-game losing streak in that 18-game stretch. Conference play turned into a brick wall for the Sooners that year.
“It’s going to be tough," said Manek, who's averaging 15.4 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, Thursday afternoon after practice. "It doesn’t matter if you’re at the bottom or the top of the Big 12. You got to come in to play every day. I think (the newcomers) are all going to figure that out shortly.”
Two players from the Sooners' roster — redshirt juniors Kur Kuath and Austin Reaves — experienced Big 12 play from the bench, as Reaves had to sit out due to NCAA rules requiring him to sit after transferring from Wichita State, and Kuath having to sit due to a back injury that held him to very few minutes of playing time.
But what they've learned from that period of watching is how physical the conference is. They've seen it firsthand and are now about to make their debuts on Saturday. It's also led to a breakout season from Reaves and a breakout game from Kuath, who tallied 17 points and eight rebounds in OU's 91-72 win over UTRGV Monday night.
Kuath's OU career-high came in the absence of Doolittle, who missed his second game this season after breaking NCAA rules because of a “conflict of team interests."
That, along with watching former Oklahoma center Jamuni McNeace last season, is a big stepping stone for Kuath, who makes his Big 12 debut alongside Reaves on Saturday.
“It just gave me a view of how physical the game is in the Big 12," Kuath said. "It was helpful being able to witness and see all the Big 12 games that we had last year. It was a good learning experience for me.
"We’re trying to win a Big 12 Championship this year.”
What Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said
Kruger, in his ninth season at the helm of the Sooners, is in the midst of working with one of the youngest teams he's had as OU's coach. He said the three losses they have this season are a good indicator on where this team is going into conference play.
“It’s understanding that we lost three games on the road to three good teams,” Kruger said. “The environment at Wichita State, the environment in Omaha against Creighton prepped us well for what lies ahead in conference. Hopefully we’ve learned a lot from that and the value of each possession.”
In his 2019 recruiting class is freshman point guard De'Vion Harmon, who's had an up-and-down season so far. He's averaging 8.1 points and 2.5 assists per game, and he had a season-high of 23 points in the Sooners' season opener. Harmon has found himself in the starting lineup in the team's first 10 games, while coming from the bench in the Sooners' last two contests. Kruger said he's still working with different lineups.
“Even now, we’re not sure who’s going to be playing what role," Kruger said, "as much as we’d like to, two weeks from now.”
Doolittle good to go
Kruger said Doolittle, who's averaging a team-high 16.7 points per game, will play in Saturday's match, and he insists that his breaking NCAA rules twice is in the past.
"It's behind us," Kruger said. "Full speed forward."