College Basketball: Is Oklahoma The Big 12 Favorite?

The Oklahoma Sooners are off to a 2-0 start in Big 12 play, and grabbed the league’s statement win so far, beating Texas 70-49 in Austin. After the win, Oklahoma moved up to No. 7 in the Pomeroy Ratings, tops in the Big 12.

The Sooners were a sleeper coming into the season, but with the win at Texas and the struggles of Kansas and Iowa State, are the Sooners actually the favorites?Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas has gotten a lot of the publicity for the Sooners, scoring 11.8 points per game on 57 percent shooting, but Buddy Hield has been the star for Oklahoma so far. Hield leads the team in scoring, plays a ton of minutes, and really takes up the bulk of the offense. He’s shooting well outside (37.1 percent on threes) and inside (45 percent on twos), though he has been more of a jump shooter this year than in years past.

The Sooners have made their biggest strides defensively. Last year they ranked 91st nationally in adjusted defense, and they’ve lowered that all the way to third this year. Assuming the offense will improve to the levels the Sooners achieved last year, Oklahoma could be one scary team. However, I don’t think they are the favorite yet, for three reasons.

1. Depth

Oklahoma has probably the best starting group in the conference, and maybe the country, with Thomas, Jordan Woodard, Hield, Isaiah Cousins, and Ryan Spangler. They have various tools in the toolbox: shooting, ball handling, the ability to draw fouls, and the ability to defend. But beyond those five, Oklahoma is incredibly thin. Just 26.1 percent of the team’s minutes go to its bench players, which is 309th in the country. Junior guard Dinjiyl Walker is probably the team’s best bench option, and he plays just under 14 minutes per game. If one of the Sooner starters, especially a big man, gets into foul trouble (or, god forbid, gets injured), the Sooners could be in trouble.

2. Defensive luck

I hesitate to use the term luck, because it implies I don’t think Oklahoma is good defensively. The Sooners certainly are good, but perhaps not quite as good as the adjusted efficiency numbers suggest. Case in point: Oklahoma is allowing teams to take roughly 35 percent of their shots from three, which ranks 212th nationally, and in watching a few Sooners games, it is clear they give up some good looks. However, opponents are shooting just 28 percent on threes. The Big 12 isn’t filled with elite shooting teams, but there are plenty of very good shooters in the league, and assuming that “three-point percentage allowed” number regresses a bit, the Sooners’ defensive numbers will get a bit worse.

3. Schedule

Oklahoma has not played a ton of great competition this season. Texas is by far its best win, and just the team’s second true road win of the season (the other being Tulsa). I don’t like to play the pick-and-choose game with Pomeroy Ratings, but both Baylor and Butler appear to be a bit overrated by KenPom, which tends to inflate the difficulty of Oklahoma’s schedule as well. This is not to say they are not prepared for a Big 12 schedule, but the Sooners will have to adjust to playing tougher competition night in and night out; playing road games; and getting every team’s absolute best shot. They’re probably not the favorites yet, but the Sooners are putting the Big 12 on notice.