Kristian Doolittle referred to them as “cliques.”
The small exclusive circles that segmented members of last year's Oklahoma men's basketball team were easy to spot. This player would always be seen with that one, not so much with this other teammate. It became a way of life for the Sooners, as they rose to No. 4 in the rankings only to come crashing down, losing nine of their last 11, including their NCAA tournament first-round game against Rhode Island.
This offseason, with five new players, they wanted to make a change.
“We're more of a one-unit team,” Doolittle said. “We all do things together, no like two or three people hanging out or having a little clique. We're all excited to have a good year, and that's something we all have in common. We all want to win. That can bring anybody together.”
OU has to come together fast. For the first time since 1977, and just the second time since 1940, the Sooners start the season with back-to-back true road games.
After a Nov. 9 trip to Edinburgh, Texas, to play UT-Rio Grand Valley where coach Lon Kruger got his first head coaching job in 1982, the Sooners will stay in Texas to play Nov. 11 against UT-San Antonio, which finished 20-15 last year.
“Going away, that will mature us even faster,” guard Christian James said. “Home games are fun to have, but road games are the ones that you want to win. When we go on the road, it seems like a mission. Those are the funnest games to me, to go on the road and try to pull out a win in somebody else's home.”
To get ready, the Sooners have been spending a large amount of time together off the court.
Backup center Kur Kuath, who transferred from Salt Lake Community College in Utah, and starting center Jamuni McNeace took in the OU-Texas volleyball match a few weeks ago. Kuath says that wasn't a one-time thing.
“We actually do a lot together as a team,” Kuath said. “We go to dinner a lot together. We got to the cafe all the time. We go to volleyball games, movies together. We just do a lot of stuff together. We've got a strong relationship as a team.”
Graduate transfer Miles Reynolds, from Pacific, said a bunch of the players went out with him to Campus Corner for his birthday back in October. They've been doing more and more of that over the last month as the season started to come into focus.
“It makes a huge a difference on the court when you can really rely on somebody, and you have good friendship with somebody,” Reynolds said. “You know that their love is genuine.”
Reynolds talked about conversations with former college stars Devin Booker and Jalen Brunson. Booker's Kentucky Wildcats went 38-0 before losing in the Final Four in 2014-15 and Brunson won national championships at Villanova in 2016 and 2018. They pointed to team chemistry as a key to their success.
“They were willing to do everything for each other on and off the court,” Reynolds said. “They were virtually inseparable. When one guy went somewhere, he had three four of his teammates with him. There weren't any guys on an island that felt alone.”
Reynolds wanted to help bring that to Norman. He set up team dinners, nights out, etc., but found the returning Sooners just as motivated to avoid repeating the mistakes of last year, or even the year the year before when OU went 11-20.
“I feel like this team is pretty close,” James said. “We've only been together two months, and I feel like we're closer than the past two teams we've had. This team could be special. We're deep, and I feel like everybody can contribute on an any-given-night basis.”
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24 Jamal Bieniemy G 6-4 181 Fr. Katy, Texas
2 Aaron Calixte G 5-11 179 Gr. Stoughton, Mass.
21 Kristian Doolittle F 6-7 232 Jr. Edmond, Okla. (Edmond Memorial HS)
5 Matt Freeman F 6-10 229 Jr. Auckland, New Zealand
22 Patrick Geha F 6-5 212 Sr. Leawood, Kan.
0 Christian James G 6-4 213 Sr. Houston, Texas
52 Kur Kuath F 6-10 204 Jr. Biemnon, South Sudan
14 Ty Lazenby G 6-5 209 Sr. Glencoe, Okla. (Northern Oklahoma College Enid)
35 Brady Manek F 6-9 222 So. Harrah, Okla. (Harrah HS)
4 Jamuni McNeace C 6-10 215 Sr. Kankakee, Ill.
1 Rashard Odomes G 6-6 217 Sr. Copperas Cove, Texas
44 Hannes Pöllä C 6-11 267 So. Lahti, Finland
12 Austin Reaves G 6-5 180 RJr. Newark, Ark.
3 Miles Reynolds G 6-3 176 Gr. Chicago, Ill.
30 Luke Stephenson G 6-3 198 Sr. Lubbock, Texas
32 Read Streller F 6-8 237 So. Edmond, Okla. (Oklahoma Christian School)