(AP) - For the first time since coach Lon Kruger arrived in 2011, high expectations surround the Oklahoma basketball program.
Starters Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler and Jordan Woodard are back from a team that finished second in the Big 12 and landed a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. The conference's coaches have picked the Sooners to finish third in the Big 12.
At No. 19, they begin a season ranked for the first time in five years as they host Southeastern Louisiana on Sunday.
Kruger said he's aware of what people are saying - and will remind his team that success is earned.
"What we hope to get is guys playing as close to their potential each night, each game, each possession, if you will," he said. "If we do that, then everything else kind of takes care of itself. But easier said than done. That's a big challenge, and with the talk out there, the expectations and the media attention, all that is different, and we have to handle that well."
As successful as they were, the Sooners lost to No. 12 seed North Dakota State in their opening NCAA tournament game.
"Anytime you get to the tournament it is great," Kruger said. "Still, when you lose, it becomes a motivating factor in the offseason. This group understands that and they want to do more and go farther."
Oklahoma seemingly has a much better chance to go farther if TaShawn Thomas plays. A senior transfer from Houston, Thomas is appealing to the NCAA to become eligible this season instead of sitting out a year.
The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 15.4 points and 8.1 rebounds last season, and started all 96 games he played for the Cougars. He would provide Oklahoma with a low-post scorer after he shot 59 percent from the field last season.
The Sooners lost Cameron Clark, their No. 2 scorer who averaged 15.6 points and made it easier for the others to operate. Hield, a preseason All-Big 12 selection who led the team with 16.5 points per game last season, bulked up in the offseason and will attack more, rather than focusing so much on outside shooting.
Spangler, the reigning Big 12 rebounding champion, is back for his junior year after averaging 9.6 points and 9.3 boards last season. He focused on refining his offensive skills in the offseason and expects to score more.
A tough, intense and emotional player whose energy lifts the team, Spangler also has embraced his role as the vocal leader. If he adds a more polished offensive attack, he becomes a likely candidate for postseason honors.
Oklahoma will play in the Battle 4 Atlantis on Nov. 26-28, starting with UCLA, then getting Butler or North Carolina, and followed by Florida, Georgetown, UAB or Wisconsin. The tournament will give the Sooners a chance to make an early impression and get some key wins to position themselves for NCAA tournament seeding down the road.
The non-conference schedule also has the Sooners at Creighton on Nov. 19 and at home Dec. 5 against Missouri.
They ranked seventh in the nation in scoring last season, but occasionally lacked focus on defense. They believe they can be special if their defensive intensity matches their scoring prowess.
"We are tremendously better on defense," Spangler said. "We are not where we need to be, but we have a couple weeks to do that before the first game. That will be the deciding factor on where this team goes."
Southeastern Louisiana opened its season Friday against one of the Sooners' top rivals, losing 83-55 at Oklahoma State, but was fairly competitive against a Cowboys team which reached last season's NCAA tournament.
The Lions trailed by two at halftime and finished with a 40-38 rebounding advantage, but they couldn't overcome a 31.7 percent shooting night which included a 6-for-28 effort from 3-point range.
Zay Jackson had a team-high 16 points, and Devonte Upson added 10 with 10 rebounds for Southeastern Louisiana, which lost its top three scorers from a season ago.
Oklahoma won 103-66 in the teams' only previous meeting Jan. 4, 1986.