Kruger, Oklahoma deal with growing pains, tough losses

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) A year ago, Buddy Hield was dropping 3-pointers seemingly at will, leading Oklahoma to win after thrilling win. The Sooners were ranked in the top five, and they eventually earned the Final Four banner that hangs high at the Lloyd Noble Center.

Hield is now with the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans, and those close wins he once willed Oklahoma to have become deflating losses. The Sooners are 8-14, and the some of the defeats are heartbreakers. There was the double-overtime loss to Iowa State that saw the Sooners blow a six-point lead in the first overtime . They also squandered a five-point lead in the final 15 seconds against Texas and lost on a 3-pointer with 11 seconds left against Oklahoma State.

''We've had a lot of good play, a lot of good stretches, but too many times, the poor stretches have hurt us,'' Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. ''We just haven't been consistent in that way and, of course, finishing ball games is a big key.''

Kruger, one of college basketball's most successful coaches, is struggling through one of his worst seasons. He sees a bright future - the Sooners won at West Virginia when the Mountaineers were ranked No. 7 nationally . They hope to duplicate the effort Wednesday, when they host West Virginia in the rematch.

''They've continued to work,'' Kruger said. ''They've had a great attitude about getting better every day in practice. The enthusiasm, the intensity, the effort in practice has been very good. From that standpoint, you can't tell if we're winning ball games or losing ball games, which I guess is a good thing. But they are disappointed in not winning. They are wanting to work to change that.''

Senior guard Jordan Woodard is among the conference's leading overall scorers, averaging 15.4 points this season, and freshmen Kameron McGusty and Kristian Doolittle are among the conference's top newcomers. McGusty is Oklahoma's leading scorer in conference play, averaging 15.8 points. Doolittle is the team's top rebounder in conference play (7.3 per game).

Junior center Khadeem Lattin is still anchoring the paint, and he has some help from sophomore Jamuni McNeace. Sophomores Rashard Odomes, Dante Buford and Christian James, reserves last year, are key contributors this season.

Woodard sees potential in his young teammates.

''They have a lot of skill,'' he said. ''They come in, they already know how to play the game. It's just learning when to win. Big 12 basketball is different. We have a lot of guys. They are just young. With more time and experience, they could all be high-caliber Big 12 players.''

Woodard is the team's top overall scorer, but he has had some rough patches during conference play. He said teams are defending him differently now that Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler are gone, but he also knows he still has to deliver.

''They are doing a better job of collapsing when I get in the paint,'' he said. ''Some teams deny me the ball back when I give it up. I just have to maintain my aggression and hopefully get the free throw line and use that against them.''

The mix of young talent and holdovers with new roles has flashed signs of coming together and finding answers.

''I think we are,'' McGusty said. ''I think we are slowly, but surely. I think we fixed one to two things every game, but when we figure out a way to put together two full halves, I think we'll be okay.''

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Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

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