The college basketball season isn't far off. It’s time to start looking at the important questions that will shape the 2016-17 season.
As dazzling as Oklahoma's 2015-16 season was -- and, with the exception of that 44-point loss to Villanova in the Final Four, it was almost exclusively dazzling -- one might argue that the four years that preceded it will stand as the most impressive, and most lasting, achievement in recent OU hoops history, and even Lon Kruger's 40-year coaching career.
Either way, both views lead back to one central, simple question about the 2016-17 Oklahoma Sooners:
Kruger arrived in Norman, Oklahoma, on April 1, 2011. A year earlier, under former coach Jeff Capel, OU assistant Orlando Taliaferro had abruptly resigned -- just a few weeks before the Oklahoman uncovered dozens of calls and texts from Taliaferro to a Tampa financial advisor, who had wired $3,000 to five-star prospect and All-Name Team-er Tiny Gallon. The NCAA launched an investigation. Before it would finish, Capel would be fired, if not for presiding over the program's second serious scandal in five years (the first came under Kelvin Sampson; Capel was never implicated) then for the 36 losses, and massive roster exodus, suffered in his final two seasons.
Five years later, this feels like ancient, irrelevant history. Because for five years under Kruger, the Sooners have done nothing but get better.
The trajectory is almost unnerving in its systemic steadiness: In 2011-12, Kruger's first season, OU finished the season No. 102 in the Basketball Power Index (BPI) rankings. In 2012-13, they jumped to 47. In 2013-14, they ranked No. 30; in 2014-15, they leapt to No. 13. In 2015-16 -- during which already-excellent volume scorer Buddy Hield went supernova en route to the Wooden Award and a Final Four run, and OU occupied the Associated Press poll's No. 1 spot for the first time in a quarter-century -- the Sooners finished the season ranked No. 6. (For comparison's sake, KenPom's adjusted efficiency metric tells an identical four-year story: No. 115, No. 49, No. 33, No. 13, No. 7).
Moore's Law isn't supposed to apply to college basketball teams. Yet here we are, five years on, at a place where taking OU's general growth for granted seems like the only intelligent course -- tempting, even, in the face of devastating roster turnover, even when sustaining success (let alone improving it) looks more or less impossible.
That's where the actual 2016-17 Sooners seem to be. Take out a half-decade's trajectory and the inherent trust it has built, and it's unfathomable to imagine Kruger's latest group matching, let alone exceeding, the 2015-16 season.
Reaching this conclusion does not require much thought. Hield -- who last season flirted with the 50-50-90 shooting pantheon while taking 31 percent of his team's shots (and finished with a 45.7 3-point shooting percentage ... on 322 attempts!!!) -- is gone. He is irreplaceable. Duh. The same goes for Isaiah Cousins, who, beyond being a senior and a point guard, was also the sturdy platform from which many of Hield's explosions were launched. Meanwhile, Ryan Spangler -- also a senior -- was the team's best two-way rebounder, its only interior scoring threat, and a lethal, space-clearing pick-and-pop five.
Losing Hield would be hard enough. Losing Cousins and Spangler would be brutal. Losing all three at once marks the end of an epoch. Because the thing about the 2015-16 Sooners wasn't just that they had the best offensive player in the sport, or that they were an experienced, well-coached team. It was that those things were true of four players -- Hield, Cousins, Spangler and junior Jordan Woodard -- who, by April, would enter their 105th consecutive game as members of the same starting lineup.
This doesn't happen. College basketball is no longer a game of year-over-year player retention; it is a game of one-and-dones and transfers and -- at the very least -- injuries. Yet for three entire seasons, Oklahoma's starting lineup avoided all three, building the kind of chemistry that goes beyond friendship and on-court cohesion and enters the higher plane of invisible basketball telepathy.
When Woodard takes the floor this November, he will be Oklahoma's senior star, its undisputed leader, and its most important player. He will have to do more than ever before, particularly as a point guard but also as an isolation-capable combo scoring threat. And he will have to shoulder this challenge without the benefit of the bonds that made Oklahoma so fun to watch, and so effective, a season ago. That's tough.
Which is not to say he won't have help. Kruger still has a good roster here. Rising junior Kadeem Latin was one of the Big 12's best rim protectors and offensive rebounders a season ago, and he's already a solid finisher, even with a still-blossoming post-up game. Dante Buford and Christian James were promising freshmen in a tight rotation; they'll have much greater opportunities now. Kameron McGusty (ESPN 100's No. 10-ranked shooting guard) and Kristian Doolittle (the No. 17-ranked power forward) offer immediate infusions of talent -- and at positions that should allow Woodard and Latin to maximize their respective strengths.
There's promise all over the place. Still, even the most relentlessly positive Oklahoma fan would have a hard time believing this group will spend the 2016-17 season continuing the program's five-year trend. There's very little mountain left to ascend now, anyway.
If Kruger somehow figures that out, then we will know, once and for all, that Oklahoma actually is governed by Moore's Law, because its coach actually is a sentient supercomputer.
More likely is that Kruger's program, after its methodical climb into relevance and beyond, will find rewards in a more sustainable, less breakneck existence. Oklahoma may not be great, at least not this season. But it will be a very long time until Oklahoma is not good.