#9 Oklahoma by Mike Rutherford

Photo: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

A season ago, Oklahoma won multiple games in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009. Now, the Sooners are preparing for a season with more hype than any since Blake Griffin and company were one win away from the program's fifth Final Four appearance.

Expectations haven't been this high for Oklahoma basketball in a long time, and with good reason. The Sooners plummeted after Griffin bounced for the NBA in 2009, missing the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons before Jeff Capel was fired to make way for the Lon Kruger era. Kruger has taken OU to the big dance in three consecutive seasons, and was a narrow loss to Michigan State away from having his team on the brink of the Final Four. Now, with reigning Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield back in the fold, Oklahoma has far bigger goals than simply crashing the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Oklahoma will play one of the toughest non-conference slates in all of Division-I this season. It starts with a season-opener at Memphis and then continues nine days later when 2015 national runner-up Wisconsin comes to Norman. Neutral site games against Villanova and Washington State as well as a home showdown with Creighton are on the docket in December before Big 12 play begins on Jan. 2. The Sooners will also take a break from the rigors of conference play to face LSU on the road on Jan. 30.

If the Sooners are a legitimate contender to finish their season in Houston, we should get a pretty good indication at some point during the season's first two months.

How the Sooners can succeed: With a well-rounded, experienced and talented starting five

There might not be a player in college basketball this season whose return means more to his team than Buddy Hield's does to Oklahoma.

Hield was one of the sport's few players last spring who had a legitimate chance to be selected in the NBA Draft and still chose to return to school. The native of the Bahamas had a monster junior season, averaging 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game on his way to earning Big 12 Player of the Year and third team AP All-American honors. He was honored last week as the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, and there's a strong chance that he'll be a first team preseason AP All-American when those teams are released in the near future.

In addition to being Oklahoma's emotional leader and most talented player, Hield is also one of the most entertaining interviews in the country.

So, we look forward to more of that.

Hield is joined in the backcourt by another pair of proven scorers in Isiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard. Both players like to shoot the three (they made 80 combined a season ago), but they each also seem to be something of an awkward fit alongside Hield, who uses up a hefty amount of the team's offensive possessions. On 10 occasions last season, Cousins shot below 30 percent from the field. For Woodard the issue was taking care of the ball, as he turned it over three or more times in 15 of the Sooners' 25 games in 2014-15. A full year and a complete offseason of playing alongside Hield should help both players be more comfortable in their roles this season.

Since transferring from Gonzaga, forward Ryan Spangler has been one of the nation's most consistent performers. He's not a pure scorer by any stretch of the imagination, but his tireless effort around the glass leaves him perpetually in a position to rack up easy points. There will be few times this season when his final stat line isn't somewhere in the vicinity of a double-double.

Joining Spangler in the paint is one of the more interesting junior college transfers in the country this season, big man Akolda Manyang. The 7'2 center is the cousin of former OU standout Longar Longar, and is the tallest player to suit up for the Sooners in more than 15 years. Manyang has a reputation for being a shot blocker who can also score in a variety of different ways on the other end of the court. It's yet to be seen how much he'll embrace the physicality of life in the Big 12, but that's where being on the floor with Spangler will really help.

How Oklahoma can go home early: An inability to fully replace Tashawn Thomas

We've talked a lot about what Oklahoma has in its starting lineup this season, but here's what it doesn't have: Tashawn Thomas. The Houston transfer was billed as the scoring threat in the post that the Sooners desperately needed, and he delivered, averaging 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game despite playing on an OU team with a handful of guys who loved to let the ball fly from deep.

Thomas and sophomore guard Frank Booker, who transferred to Florida Atlantic, are the only members of Oklahoma's eight leading scorers from last season who aren't back for another run. As encouraging is that is, Thomas possessed a skill set that no one on OU's current roster appears certain of replicating.

The player who Kruger is hoping might be able to evolve into a Thomas-esque talent at forward is sophomore Khadeem Lattin. The 6'9 forward averaged just 2.0 points and 3.2 rebounds last season, but has the offensive potential to be the serious inside scoring threat Oklahoma's guards need to keep opposing defenses honest.

Lattin is already a much better defender than Thomas was, but foul trouble followed him throughout his freshman campaign. Despite playing on a team loaded with juniors and seniors, Lattin has the potential to develop into a player who provides the difference between Sweet 16 and Final Four.

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