October 28, 2015

There hasn't been this much hype about Oklahoma hoops since Blake Griffin was on campus.

The Sooners return four starters - three of them seniors - from last year's squad that barely missed the Elite Eight.

Buddy Hield, the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year, leads the way. He averaged 17.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game while leading the team in 3-point goals. He seriously considered jumping to the NBA before deciding to stay. Now, the Final Four is a legitimate possibility.

''He made a decision that will be very good for him in the long run, and certainly, very good for our program,'' Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said.

Kruger knows last season's success makes his team a target.

''These guys have never really been in that position before, but they'll handle it well,'' Kruger said. ''They understand how they have to work every day, focus every day, and work at getting better. They know how tough the league is, so they know what lies ahead.''

Oklahoma isn't ducking the competition. The Sooners play at Memphis on Nov. 17, host Wisconsin on Nov. 29, face Villanova on Dec. 7 in Honolulu, Hawaii and host Creighton on Dec. 19.

Here are some things to watch for from Oklahoma this season:

DETHRONING THE CHAMPS? Kansas has won 11 straight conference titles, but this version of the Sooners might be the biggest threat to unseat the Jayhawks after back-to-back second-place finishes. The coaches picked the Sooners to finish second this year, the highest they have been selected since Kruger became coach in 2011. Oklahoma has finished higher than it was picked every year during Kruger's tenure.

GAME EXPERIENCE: Hield and the other returning starters - Jordan Woodard, Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins - each started every game last season. Woodard, the point guard, averaged 9.3 points and led the team in assists. Spangler, a forward, averaged 9.7 points and led the team in rebounding. Cousins, a shooting guard, was the team's No. 2 scorer with 11.7 points per game, and he was second on the team in 3-point goals.

''It's great to have them from them being familiar, them having the experience, a lot of Big 12 starts,'' Kruger said. ''Leadership out of that group is outstanding, maybe as good as we've ever had with a returning group. The work ethic, their unselfishness, all those things that you'd certainly rather have than not.''

FRESHMAN CLASS: Highly regarded recruits Christian James and Rashard Odomes will play immediately.

Odomes, a 6-foot-6 forward, averaged 25.2 points last year as a senior at Copperas Cove (Texas) High School. James, a 6-foot-4 guard, broke his leg in an AAU game in August before his senior year of high school, but he's healed up and ready to go.

''Rashard Odomes and Christian James are kind of similar in that they've got good size at the wing, very versatile,'' Kruger said. ''They're very aggressive, physical on the boards. They rebound the ball well from the wing. They can score.''

Dante Buford, a 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman forward, also should contribute.

LATTIN CLASS: Post player Khadeem Lattin should get more action after playing a limited reserve role last year. He averaged just 2.0 points per game last season as a freshman, but he added 3.2 rebounds and just under a block per contest. His leaping ability and long reach made him a game-changing defensive pest.

FIFTH STARTER? Forward TaShawn Thomas transferred from Houston and started every game last season on his way to being named Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. He averaged 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds last season. It's not yet clear who will fill his spot.

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This version eliminates incorrect reference in second paragraph to how close Sooners were to Elite Eight and clarifies.

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

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