James

OU's Christian James goes up for a shot during the Sooners' game against Ball State.

CNHI PHOTO/Kyle Phillips

NORMAN, Okla. — Last season, the Oklahoma men took a step backward. This season, the program could be in even better shape than before.

The No. 17 Sooners (10-1) have more than a week off the game court to relish their non-conference achievements. When OU travels to No. 15 TCU Saturday, beginning Big 12 conference play, their aim will be matching last season's win total before the calendar has even turned to the new year.

Their 11-20 finish in 2016-17 was OU's worst performance in coach Lon Kruger's seven seasons. It tied his lowest win total in 28 years as a Division I head coach, matching his inaugural season at Florida (1990-91). It wasn't just historically disappointing for the Sooners — their worst record since Billy Tubbs' went 9-18 his first season, 1980-81 — it stunted the momentum from the program's Final Four appearance just the season before.

Despite the disappointing finish, the Sooners started this season on the right note, winning the services of top recruit Trae Young, from Norman North, along with Harrah's Brady Manek, who like Young has also started his true freshman season.

Still, it was hard to imagine so much happening so fast.

With a young roster, featuring just one senior, forward Khadeem Lattin, the Sooners have answered every challenge. They led then-No. 25 Southern Cal by 17 early in the second half at Staples Center in Los Angeles. A strong first-half led to a convincing victory over then-No. 3 Wichita State, even in Wichita. Then, on national television Friday against Northwestern, which had held its last eight opponents to less than 55 points per game, OU scored 68 points in the first half and coasted to a 104-78 victory.

“It just shows the maturity within the guys,” Young said. “Helping Brady and I mature a little faster than we would on another team. We've had some tough games, but yeah, the guys from last year have shown a lot of maturity to help Brady and I.”

The run to the Final Four two seasons ago was also fostered by a group of seniors, whose departure put OU in a rebuilding mode.

Now, here they are, poised to make another leap forward in the polls.

There are still questions.

Can OU really maintain this scoring rate up through a grueling Big 12 conference? How will a team that depends on outside shooting and playing fast fare in the NCAA tournament? What will Young do after this season? He didn't enter OU looking to spend only one year in college, yet his quick success has made him a more interesting NBA draft possibility.

Nonetheless, returning to prominence this quickly has to feel good for a program that repeatedly blew second-half leads last season.

As the Sooners routed Northwestern, a squad once ranked in the top 20, how far they've come was proven yet again.

With several high-profile recruits in attendance, OU put on a show for them and the fans.

By Saturday morning, the program had sold out both the Bedlam game, on Jan. 3, and its Feb. 19. contest against Kansas.

“We're getting back to how it should be,” guard Christian James said. “Being on that Final Four team, and just seeing the crowd, just how much they affect the games. It's just a great time to be a Sooner.”

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