Back where it all started: Oklahoma takes on West Virginia

Ever since beating WVU in Norman, the Sooners have converted to a more defensive mindset, and the results speak for themselves
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New year, new look for Oklahoma.

The Sooners have been in the win column and ascending in the polls ever since the calendar flipped to 2021 — and it all started with a 75-71 win over West Virginia.

OU and WVU meet again on Saturday in a noon (CT) tipoff in Morgantown.

The Mountaineers also have a different look — that was their first game without thundering big man Oscar Tshiebwe. Bob Huggins has opted for a four-guard lineup since then, and OU’s Lon Kruger has been impressed.

“They’re playing different than they have at any point in Bob’s time at West Virginia, in terms of four guards and pushing the ball and a lot of perimeter shots,” Kruger said.

No. 12-ranked OU comes in 12-5 overall and 7-4 in Big 12 Conference play (good for third in the Big 12 standings), while No. 14 West Virginia is 14-5 and 7-3 (second).

Huggins and the Mountaineers might be surprised by another element of Oklahoma that wasn’t quite in place the last time they played: the Sooner defense.

Elijah Harkless

Elijah Harkless (right)

OU leads the Big 12 in defensive efficiency, according to a story Friday in The Athletic, and since switching to a four-guard lineup and inserting defensive ace Elijah Harkless into the starting five, the Sooner defense has been spectacular.

OU is yielding just 64.3 points per game as a team in 2021, and since Harkless joined the starters against Kansas, that number is 62.0.

In the seven games with Harkless as a starter, opponents are shooting just .399 from the field (182-of-456) and .333 from 3-point range (58-of-174). That includes last Saturday’s tense win over Iowa State, in which the Cyclones got going from deep on a 16-of-31 shooting night.

The way Oklahoma has played in 2021, Iowa State’s shooting seemed like an exception to the rule. OU hasn’t allowed a team to shoot better than 36 percent from the perimeter since Jan. 6, but the Cyclones shot 52 percent.

The last team to shoot that well against the Sooners? West Virginia shot .583 (14-of-24) in their last meeting, a preview of Huggins’ new look.

With Harkless in the starting lineup, OU’s turnover margin has gone from plus-2.0 to plus-5.0 — explained by his 2.7 steals per game, which ranks fourth in the Big 12 during that stretch.

Harkless is contributing more than defense. He scored an OU-career high 19 against Iowa State (his mother was watching live for the first time since he left Cal State Northridge), and he has scored in double figures three of his last five games.

“His comfort level has just grown with each game,” Kruger said. “He’s always gonna work hard. He’s always gonna compete like crazy. I think offensively is where you’ve noticed the biggest change, because again, Big 12 play, against really good opponents, he’s getting more and more comfortable, and I think that will continue as we go through the last month of the season.”

Alondes Williams v. West Virginia

Alondes Williams vs. West Virginia

Kruger said on a radio interview this week he expects starting guard Alondes Williams to return to the floor after a more than two-week absence due to COVID-19. Not having to play No. 2-ranked Baylor on Wednesday (that game was postponed) allowed Williams another day of recovery for the Sooners’ finishing stretch.

“He’s bounced back well, though,” Kruger said of Williams. “Not physically behind. He’s got his bounce, he’s got his pop to his step. He’s not dragging around from the COVID at all. Cardio-wise, it’ll take him a little while to get back to where he was. He doesn’t have to play a lot of minutes, but I think he’ll be ready Saturday to give us minutes in critical situations.”

Williams’ return comes at the right time. The way West Virginia plays, Oklahoma is going to need a full contingent of players.

“West Virginia is very good,” Kruger said. “They’re very good, very physical and playing at the highest level of confidence, probably, that I’ve seen them play with all year.”