EDINBURG — There might not be a deeper conference than the Big 12.
All 10 of the league’s teams have made the NCAA Tournament at least once since the 2016-17 basketball season. The Oklahoma Sooners went to the Big Dance last season, spearheaded by NBA Draft lottery pick Trae Young.
When they were led by Young, the Sooners were just that: young. OU was the second-youngest team (an average 1.26 years of experience per player, according to Kenpom.com) in the conference and the 48th-youngest in the country.
This season, Oklahoma is radically more experienced. The average Sooner player has played college basketball for 2.36 years per Kenpom.com, which makes Oklahoma the oldest team in the Big 12 and 13th-oldest in Division I.
One Sooner senior, guard Christian James, had the green light early and could not be stopped. James scored 17 of his game-high 29 points in the first half, punctuated on a 3-pointer before the halftime buzzer. Oklahoma built a double-digit lead on 11 3-pointers in its 91-76 victory over UTRGV at Bert Ogden Arena.
“Our seniors are being asked to work in different roles this year than what they did a year ago,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “I thought Christian James played great tonight. He did a lot of things well for us. (Forward) Jamuni McNeace, another senior, had 12 rebounds. Our two fifth-year guys did well. Our experience showed, but I think it’s a situation that we’ll learn from.”
The Sooners (1-0) were also on the free-throw line (22 of 31 attempts) more often, compared to the Vaqueros who took 17 free throws total.
“We have to stop fouling. We were fouling away from the basket way too much,” UTRGV coach Lew Hill said. “We did a better job of rebounding tonight. They only outrebounded us by six, but we put them at the line 31 times. That’s way too many.”
UTRGV (1-1) held two short leads in the opening two minutes, the last of which came on Lesley Varner II’s first basket of the game to make it 4-3. Varner was one of four Vaqueros in double figures, finishing with a team-high 16 points on 7-for-8 shooting.
“I need to make sure that I’m doing my thing on the defensive side to help the team and let the scoring come,” Varner said. “It’s not as hard if you know what’s coming your way and what the coach and team needs from you. Then you prepare and do it on the court when it’s time to do it.”
“I challenged Lesley to be a rebounder and a defender,” Hill said. “He could score, but he has to score off of the defense and rebounding, which he did a good job of tonight. When he does that and let the game just happen for him, he’s really good. He’s one of the more versatile players in our league.”
The return of former Pan American coach Kruger, along with the recognizable brand-name of Oklahoma, was a record-setter for the men’s basketball program. The Vaqueros lost to OU, the preseason No. 8 team in the Big 12, before a program-best attendance of 5,071.
“We’ll come back,” Kruger said. “We love it here. We look forward to getting back and cheering on coach Hill’s team on the rest of the way.”