The Norman Transcript

March 1, 2014

Longer road but worth it for Clark, Neal

By John Shinn
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — College basketball has become a game of instant gratification. More so than any other sport, players are expected to arrive on campus and perform as polished finished products before they ever celebrate their 20th birthday.

When it doesn’t occur, some think there is something wrong.

Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger has been around the game much longer than most and he still sighs when that notion is presented.

“People talk about the one-and-done guys, and if you’re not one-and-done, the initial thought is the guy didn’t get off to a very good start in his college career,” he said. “Most guys aren’t that way. A very small percentage are. There’s nothing wrong with being a four-year guy.”

The Sooners (20-8, 9-6 Big 12) will honor two of them prior to their showdown with No. 24 Texas (21-7, 10-5) at 3 p.m. today at Lloyd Noble Center.

The game will make a huge impact on the Big 12 Conference standings since the Longhorns are tied for second and the Sooners are tied for fourth with just three regular-season games left.

It’s the type of game senior forwards Cameron Clark and Tyler Neal always hoped would be quintessential parts of their careers. All who sign up to play college basketball have that desire.

But Clark and Neal have a common link in that both have experienced the lows before experiencing the highs they have this season.

Neal’s decision to come to OU was easy. He grew up in the shadow of it in Oklahoma City. When former coach Jeff Capel offered him scholarship right before the spring signing period in 2010, the Putnam City West forward committed quickly.

“I always wanted to be part of this program,” Neal said.

Clark was the Sooners’ biggest recruit that year. He was a consensus top 40 recruit out of Sherman, Texas. The expectations Clark carried were enormous.

However, neither experienced instant impact careers.

There’s no doubt Clark has been one of the best players in the Big 12 this season. He enters today’s game averaging 15.3 points a game, which is 11th best in the conference.

Yet it took Clark four years to become that kind of player.

“I did four years here and I feel like I got better each and every year,” Clark said.

Neal can say the same. He hasn’t started a game since his freshman season. One of the reasons is he and Clark play the same position — the power forward spot designed to draw bigger defenders away from the paint.

However, Neal was a career 36.9-percent shooter in his first three seasons. He’s shooting 45.7 percent this season, including 42.4 percent from 3-point range. The only Sooner shooting better beyond the arc is Clark (46.8 percent). It’s the gradual ascension most college careers take.

“It’s been good to experience that and an honor to be here,” Neal said.

Both were a part of teams that went 14-18 their freshman year in 2011-12 and ended with the firing of Capel. They suffered the 15-16 campaign in Kruger’s initial season as sophomores.

They experienced the joy of OU returning to the NCAA tournament last season. This year, they’ve helped OU get back in the Top 25 for the first time since 2009 and a serious factor in the Big 12 race and a team to contend with in March.

Seniors get to go through those kinds of experiences. Every player that signs a letter of intent would love to come in and dominate from the opening game of their freshman year. The truth is: successful programs have a lot more career paths like Clark and Neal than freshman superstars who are in and out of college in less than a year.

“It’s great to see them as seniors playing a high level and with confidence,” Kruger said. “They’ve done a terrific job.”

John Shinn

Follow me @john_shinn

jshinn@normantranscript.com

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