Looking ahead: Oklahoma Sooners

It’s never too early to start to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: the Oklahoma Sooners.

Buddy Hield's decision to return to the Oklahoma Sooners for his senior season re-established this perennial assumption about the Big 12: It will once again be a gauntlet in 2015-16.

On your way to Ames? Good luck with Wooden Award candidate Georges Niang and an Iowa State squad that will be a top-five crew entering the season. Kansas just signed Cheick Diallo, a stellar incoming freshman who will join Perry Ellis on a Kansas team that has legit aspirations to win its 12th consecutive conference title. Rico Gathers is back to lead a strong Baylor assembly. Compared to VCU, Shaka Smart has bigger, stronger and better athletes to swarm the Big 12 at Texas.

But Hield’s return elevates Oklahoma to the top of that heap next to Iowa State and Kansas.

Hield returned for a few reasons. One, the cash. Hield, a likely preseason first-team All-American, was nothing more than a projected second-round pick after last season. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard who averaged 17.4 PPG and made 82 percent of his free throws hopes to expand his game and improve his ballhandling (1.9 turnovers per game last year) while boosting his NBA draft stock.

Plus, he wants a national championship.

Lon Kruger is the only coach in Division I history to win NCAA tournament games with five programs. But the veteran coach hasn’t reached the Final Four since he led Florida to the final stage in 1994.

Hield’s decision to stay in Norman certainly made a deep tournament run a realistic target for a Sooners team with the pieces to win the Big 12.

“I feel like the best is yet to come with this team,” Hield told the Oklahoman after he announced his decision. “My main goal is to go to the Final Four. Why not go there? It’s my last year. Be the best player I can be and help this program go forward.”

What the immediate future holds: Oklahoma finished 24-11 overall and 12-6 in the Big 12, just one game behind the champion, Kansas. The Sooners reached the Sweet 16 but lost to a Michigan State squad that found religion late in the season.

But the bulk of that Oklahoma team will be back for 2015-16.

Hield is the headliner. But rugged forward Ryan Spangler (9.7 PPG, 8.2 RPG), Jordan Woodard (9.3 PPG) and Isaiah Cousins (11.7 PPG) will join him. That’s four returning starters and 75 percent of the offense from last season.

Plus, the Sooners will add four-star freshman Rashard Odomes and junior college 7-footer Akolda Manyang.

At their best, the Sooners were balanced in 2014-15, although inconsistency on offense was a constant challenge for them.

Oklahoma finished 44th and eighth in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, respectively, last season.

The Sooners registered just 0.80 points per possession in their nonconference loss to Wisconsin. They were down by 20 points in a loss to Washington in the MGM Grand Showcase in Las Vegas. They went 4-for-17 from the 3-point line in a Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State.

But they never entered a game without the tools to compete. Oklahoma will also boast a collection of elite talent in 2015-16.

So Oklahoma should win a bunch of games next year. And it should compete for the Big 12 title and rally in the NCAA tournament.

Kruger might have his first Final Four squad in more than 20 years.

You need a lot of luck to reach that point. The right matchups. The right breaks.

Oklahoma can’t control that. The Sooners, however, will be led by one of the brightest stars in America.

Things could be worse.