Hield lighting it up for No. 24 Sooners
Buddy Hield hasn't been in a zone like this in years.
Oklahoma's junior guard has been lights out with a league-best 20.6 points per game in Big 12 play. During one stretch, he scored at least 21 points in four straight games, including a career-high 31 against Kansas State.
''The last time I was playing like that was the end of high school,'' he said. ''It's just turning on right now for me, and I feel like if I keep on playing more games, my confidence will just keep on increasing.''
A highlight of his recent run was a 27-point outburst against Oklahoma State on Jan. 17, when he made all 10 of his shots from the field during an 82-65 win over the Cowboys in Norman.
''You always want games like that, but it never comes like that, because nobody's perfect,'' Hield said.
Oklahoma State (14-6, 4-4 Big 12) will get a second chance at him when the Cowboys host the 24th-ranked Sooners (13-7, 4-4) on Saturday.
''He's a great player, right up there for Big 12 Player of the Year right now,'' said Oklahoma State's Phil Forte, the conference's No. 2 scorer. ''He's playing really well. He had a heck of a game against us. That's what he's capable of doing if we're not locked in.''
Oklahoma State allows a league-low 59.5 points per game in league play while holding opponents to 41 percent shooting. The Cowboys come in with confidence after a 64-53 victory over No. 20 Baylor on Tuesday, and they expect to play better against Hield in the rematch.
''Just lock down, that's pretty much it,'' Oklahoma State wing Tavarius Shine said. ''He got some tough ones (last time). He's a good player. He's going to come out tough, and we've just got to play our defense against him and see how it goes.''
Hield is tough to slow down because he takes smart shots. During league play, he's shooting 49 percent from the field, yet, he's tied for the conference lead in 3-pointers per game. He's also attacking the rim more often and getting to the free-throw line more than in the past, when he relied more heavily on his outside shooting. He had career highs of eight free throws made and nine attempts against Kansas on Jan. 19.
''You figure out as you get older, the game comes to you,'' he said. ''You never see it, it just comes to you. You just got to take it when it comes to you.''
He's tough on himself, too. When asked what he thought when he saw the box score after his 10-for-10 game against Oklahoma State, Hield said, ''I shouldn't have missed those two free throws, and I had six turnovers.''
Hield's teammates make him more effective. Guard Isaiah Cousins averages 11.9 points in conference play and leads the conference in 3-point shooting percentage at 49 percent. Forward TaShawn Thomas, a transfer from Houston, averages 10.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in league play. Point guard Jordan Woodard averages 4.0 assists and is a capable scorer, too. Forward Ryan Spangler, coming off a season-high 20-point game against Texas Tech, leads the conference in field goal percentage and is the Big 12's No. 3 rebounder in league games.
Hield has improved his defense this season, often creating fast break opportunities with defensive rebounds and steals. He acknowledged he hasn't always been the best defender.
''My first couple of years, I wasn't locked in focusing,'' he said. ''My freshman year, I started off good, then had an injury. My sophomore year, I slacked off.''
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said Hield's overall improvement has lifted the team.
''He's more mature in terms of basketball savvy and understanding,'' he said. ''Much better defensively than he was a year ago. His confidence offensively is at a very high level right now. Just an overall complete player, much improved over a year ago.''
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP