The Sooners’ brutal stretch of games is over.
After falling to No. 15 Texas Tech, Oklahoma faced three-straight top-10 ranked opponents in then-No. 9 West Virginia, No. 2 Baylor and No. 6 Kansas. OU managed to go 1-2 in those games while almost upsetting the Jayhawks Jan. 9 on the road. The Sooners play TCU on Jan. 12 and Oklahoma State on Jan. 16.
Before OU’s game against the Horned Frogs on Tuesday, the team touched on senior forward Brady Manek and sophomore forward Jalen Hill missing games, redshirt senior Kur Kuath’s increased volume as a shooter and the four-guard starting lineup.
Here’s three takeaways from Monday’s press conference:
Manek, Hill to miss second-straight game
With head coach Lon Kruger confirming Manek and Hill will miss Tuesday’s game due to COVID-19 procedures, OU will lean on Kuath and sophomore forward Victor Iwuakor as the primary big men against TCU.
Manek, the team’s second-leading scorer with over 13 points per game, was missed mightily in the Sooners’ 4-point loss to Kansas on Jan. 9. Oklahoma's offense struggled from beyond the arc, shooting 30 percent from 3. According to Kruger, much of what they normally run offensively goes through Manek and Hill in the “stretch-four position.”
“For any players in the country that have to sit out, missing a game is huge to a college basketball player,” Kruger said. “People say it’s just one game or two games, but every game is precious and every opportunity to play is huge.”
Kuath’s newfound shooting
Kuath made his first 3-point shot as a Sooner against Kansas on Jan. 9 while attempting three 3s.
With the absence of Manek and Hill, Kuath found himself open on jump shots frequently and didn’t hesitate to take them. His 3 cut the Jayhawks’ lead to 2 points in the first half, and his mid-range shot tied the game at 49 with just over seven minutes to go in the second half.
Kuath’s shooting could add another element to the Sooners’ offense going forward, especially if defenses have to focus on OU’s other shooting options.
“I’ve been working on a 3-point shot pretty consistently,” Kuath said. “Just knowing that people aren’t going to respect me as much as they respect other shooters, it just makes it easier for our team because the (opponent’s big) isn’t laid so far back while I’m hitting 3s.
“He will have to respect guarding me, so basically it clears up the paint and opens lanes for everybody.”
Kruger’s four-guard lineup in Manek’s absence
Without Manek and Hill, Kruger inserted junior guard Elijah Harkless into the starting lineup, and brought Iwuakor off the bench against Kansas. With Harkless starting, the Sooners had four players that were 6-foot-5 or shorter in the opening lineup. The result was the defense forcing 10 steals, a season-high for the Sooners.
Kruger said he opted for the four guards since they were limited to just two forwards in Kuath and Iwuakor. Although they both finished with four fouls each against Kansas, Kruger tried to limit Kuath and Iwuakor from playing at the same time to keep the pair out of foul trouble.
Harkless finished the game with 5 points, five rebounds, three steals and a block, while playing 38 minutes — the most behind senior guard Austin Reaves. Harkless was deemed eligible to play on Dec. 16, less than a month before his first start this season.
“I thought he stepped in and did great in, really, the first time he’s had extended minutes,” Kruger said about Harkless’ performance against Kansas. “And he’ll get better. He’ll be better on Tuesday (against TCU) than he was on Saturday (against Kansas).”