NORMAN — Porter Moser tends to call on his mentors. Oklahoma’s third-year men’s basketball coach recently thought back to the wisdom of Tony Barone, under whom Moser got his start as a Texas A&M assistant in the early 1990s.
Barone had a saying: If you don’t like your team in September, you’re in for a long year.
The sentiment is still with Moser five programs and 25 years after he left Barone’s staff.
So, what does Moser like about the Sooners he’s taking into the 2023-24 season?
“I think this team is a likable, high-energy team,” he said. “I think we’re gonna be able to create some offense with our defense. Anytime you’re longer and faster, you can create a more havoc defense, you can create a more fast-paced offense. And I think that’s what’s trending right now with our team.”
Moser’s third roster experiment in Norman begins with a visit from Central Michigan on Monday (7 p.m., ESPN+).
Another offseason of turnover has left OU’s personnel heavily changed from the team that finished last in the Big 12 and missed the postseason. With eight scholarship newcomers, the Sooners were picked 12th out of 14 teams in the league’s preseason coaches poll.
Still chasing his first NCAA Tournament appearance at OU, this is perhaps Moser’s most critical season in Norman. Here are 23-24 questions for the Sooners coach as he opens Year 3 at OU Monday night:
Can the newcomers mesh fast enough?
The Sooners have 13 scholarship players. Eight played basketball elsewhere last year.
The transfer portal newcomers are headlined by guard Javian McCollum and big man John Hugley IV, and include Le’Tre Darthard, Rivaldo Soares, Jalon Moore and Maks Klanjscek.
Four-star freshmen Jacolb Cole and Kaden Cooper represent the Sooners’ first-year depth.
Mass roster churn in the portal era is a feature of modern college basketball. In turn, a piece of Moser’s job each year he’s been at OU has been to figure out how to make an unfamiliar group of players fit … and fast.
“There’s a race to maturity with your team and newcomers,” he said. “Not only emotionally but to have their game mature with what you’re doing and to get them on page with your system and on page with your culture.”
Trust takes time. Moser spent the summer working to build it. As that process plays out, he’ll lean on returners such as Milos Uzan, Otega Oweh and Sam Godwin.
“Those guys went through it last year,” Moser said. “And you hope you have eight or nine guys coaching that up. You don’t. But that’s why it’s so important having those leaders.”
What do the players feel about this completely turned-over roster?
If there was a generation of players who could deal with perpetual roster change, it’d be the one who grew up in AAU basketball watching a modern NBA defined by player movement.
“We’ve got nine new faces this year,” said Uzan, the sophomore guard. “(Whichever team) can come together the quickest I feel like is the biggest thing with the transfer portal right now.”
By all accounts, this is a group that fits Moser’s defense-first style. Oweh, OU’s other sophomore guard, has noticed one commonality early on.
“Something I’ve noticed with everyone that we have in this team is they’re all hungry,” he said. “I feel like I have something to prove as well. It’s something that we all can combine.”
Why will this year be different?
This is not the first Moser’s attempt with an overhauled roster in Norman.
He did plenty of manicuring to produce an NIT appearance in his first season. Last year, Moser retooled with seven newcomers and missed the postseason altogether.
What makes him confident that 2023-24 can be different?
“I think what feels different with the portal this year is I think just the flat-out talent level,” Moser said. “You were able to address needs … I think our talent level and the need level, I think we addressed it more in the transfer portal. I think we got a little older.”
Can the Sooners be more fun?
Oklahoma played some of the slowest basketball in the nation last season. It ranked 267th in possessions per game. The Sooners’ 67.7 points per game sat 281st nationally.
Moser believes the roster he’s constructed has a better shot of reaching the postseason and delivering a more entertaining product night-to-night.
“Anytime you’re longer and faster, you can create a more havoc defense, you can create a more fast-paced offense,” he said. “And I think that’s what’s trending right now with our team.”
“When you see us play you can just noticeably tell that we’re covering more space,” Moser continued. “The tempo is faster.”
How will Moser handle his early rotations?
Moser’s initial starting five is likely to go something like Uzan, McCollum, Oweh, Moore and Hugely. After that?
“It’s gonna be a work in progress,” Moser said.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The flood of newcomers means Moser will have a lot of sorting out to do over the initial two months of the season before conference play begins on Jan. 6. However, OU carries much more experienced depth in 2023-24, meaning Moser has more to work with as he figures out how to make the Sooners tick this year.
How does Moser want his guard to operate differently?
Uzan and McCollum hold the keys to everything.
“I’m looking for pace with those two,” Moser said. “It’s two guys who can get a deep outlet. Two guys who can attack the paint. Two guys that can start the domino.”
That style should fit Uzan’s game and his court vision. McCollum, the rangy, athletic scoring guard from Sienna, should settle in just fine, as well.
Can Uzan make a Year 2 jump?
Uzan’s emergence as the Sooners’ third-leading minutes-getter in his debut season was one of the bright spots. What does his sophomore season have in store?
“He looks stronger. He’s playing with great pace. His shot looks better. His leadership was better,” Moser said. “In every facet, I’m excited for his development … he’s definitely ready for the next step.”
One note: Uzan is up 10 pounds from last season, opening this year bigger and stronger at 193 pounds.
“I’m definitely a lot more physical now,” he said. “Being able to finish with a little more contact and then defensively being able to pressure the ball a little bit it’s definitely helping.”
How will Javian McCollum fit at the next level?
McCollum was a 15.9-point-per-game scorer who knocked down 43.0% of his shots as a sophomore at Sienna in 2022-23. Now the question lies with how his game can transfer into the highest levels of men’s college basketball.
McCollum is sure to face tougher defenses in the Big 12. The 6-foot-4, 160-pound guard will find more physicality, as well. His ability to hold up for 35-plus games will be something to watch.
McCollum is confident in the backcourt partnership he’s forming with Uzan.
“Los he can score it,” he said. “Him getting in the paint being able to score, that attracts the defense and now we have kickouts and the dominos starts. We have people in our rotation. I’m driving in the paint. Making plays. That’s hard to guard if you’re asking me.”
What’s Maks Klanjscek’s role?
The fifth-year transfer from Slovenia was the final addition to the Sooners’ 2023-24 roster, and Klanjscek joins the program after averaging 15.0 points per game in 32 starts at Houston Christian last year.
He’s not likely to garner many minutes off the bench. If anything, he’s a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option in case Uzan or McCollum miss time.
Whether he plays or not, the veteran transfer brings experience OU sorely needed a year ago.
“As a fifth-year, my main priority right now is to help the young guys,” Klanjscek said. “Help them get used to this.”
What’s in store for Otega Oweh’s second season?
Oweh has proven himself as a downhill, aggressive wing. As such, the up-tempo, transition basketball Moser expects to play this season should suit the sophomore’s game perfectly.
“His ball handling is much better, his passing and his shot looks better,” Moser said. “His shot was really low. He’s got his shot up.”
Like Uzan, Oweh was one of the Sooners’ breakout stars in a dreary 2022-23 campaign. Moser is looking to Oweh as a leader this year. He’ll need Oweh to take another jump in his sophomore season, as well.
Can Le’Tre Darthard’s two-way game carry over
Of all the transfer newcomers, there may be none that OU is more excited about than the transfer guard from Utah Valley.
Darthard was a 13.8 point scorer on 42.5% shooting when he earned all-conference in the Western Athletic Conference last year. He was a first-team all-conference defender in his fourth season in college basketball.
Darthard’s game fits Moser’s system. Still to be determined is how well his two-way style settles into the Big 12.
“I feel like I’m unique,” Darthard said. “The way I play is just…my game fits everywhere because you need somebody that can guard and somebody that can get shots. So I just feel like my game is just simple to me and it works for me.”
Can Jalon Moore be the Sooners’ next Jalen Hill?
Jalen Hill could have been back at OU this season as the unquestioned, veteran leader of Moser’s third team. Instead, he tips off with UNLV Wednesday night, leaving OU without a do-it-all, inside-outside wing defender.
Enter Georgia Tech transfer Jalon Moore. The 6-foot-7 forward appeared in 45 in two seasons before hitting the transfer portal and projects to bring a lot of the same things Hill brought to the Sooners’ front court.
“He’s all over the place. He’s running,” Moser said. “You might notice him for two mistakes, but you’re gonna notice him for two offensive rebounds, a lob dunk, a steal, a fast break layup. He’s involved because he goes hard and he’s an exceptional athlete.”
Will Rivaldo Soares’ toughness carry over?
Soares made 33 starts at Oregon last year and the 6-foot-6, fifth-year guard gives the Sooners another long guard or wing option off the bench in 2023-24.
What did he know about the Big 12 watching from a distance before arriving in Norman?
“The defense is more physical,” Soares said. “Guys are a lot more up on you. There’s more of them in the lanes making catches harder.”
That kind of toughness has been part of Soares’ game at the college level. His importance to OU could swing on his ability to carry that with him into conference play later this year.
“I’m a physical guy,” Soares said. “I don’t shy away from contact. I try to be the tough guy. Bring that aspect to every game. It’s basketball at the end of the day. Regardless of the conference.”
Will the freshman play much?
Cooper and Cole impressed over the summer and arrived in college basketball loaded with athleticism and potential. Both have something to offer OU this season.
However, a key difference for the Sooners in 2023-24 is their depth. Whereas as year ago OU had to turn to freshmen like Uzan and Oweh, this edition of the Sooners carries more experienced depth for Moser to dig into.
Opportunities could lie ahead for the freshmen in non-conference play. It’ll be a good sign of the direction of Moser’s third season if OU isn’t relying on them in January.
How big of an impact can John Hugley make?
Moser leaned heavily on Tanner Groves in his initial pair of seasons at OU. Hugley, the 6-foot-10, 275-pound transfer from Pitt, is unlike any big man the Sooners have rolled with in the last few years.
“John is different than we’ve had,” Moser said.
Hugley gives the Sooners a legit interior presence in the nation’s most physical conference.
In his best college season, Hugley averaged 14.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in 2021-22. He brings the Sooners interior scoring. He also brings rebounding to a team that finished last in the conference in the category a year ago.
Hugley offers OU something entirely different from what it’s had inside. Conference play will be the true test of Hugley’s impact in 2023-24.
“Going against the best of the best every night — that’s what I’m here for,” he said.
Can Hugley stay health for a full season?
OU’s success in 2023-24 relies heavily on Hugley’s availability. The Sooners, with only so much depth inside, simply need him on the floor.
That brings focus to the knee injury that jeopardized Hugley’s 2022-23 campaign. The preseason injury kept Hugley from starting the season a year ago. It ultimately held him out 29 of Pitt’s 36 games in a season that saw the Panthers reach the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32.
Moser and OU have not indicated any concerns about Hugley’s status. His health will be paramount for the Sooners over the next five months.
Where can Sam Godwin be better?
The walkon from Wofford was the Sooners’ offensive-rebounding, bench spark last year. Now on scholarship with more muscle at 235 pounds, Godwin projects to take on a larger role this season.
If Godwin can be more physical inside, Moser believes, OU’s backup forward can take another jump in 2023-24.
“He always been tough,” Moser said of Godwin. “Now, he’s got 15 more pounds to help him with that toughness. And I think that’s where you’re going to see him also take another step.
Where does Luke Northweather fit in?
Moser was pleasantly surprised during the Big 12’s preseason media event last month.
“Not one person asked about one of the names of who has probably been doing the best in practice every day,” he said. “That’s exciting.”
That player? Second-year forward Luke Northweather.
The 6-foot-11 forward returns off a redshirt year with a chance to establish himself at OU. With a feathery touch and ability on the perimeter, he offers something different from the Sooners’ other big men.
There are likely to be growing pains. But the ceiling is high for the talented big man.
Can the Sooners win Game No. 1?
Leave Monday night 1-0 and the Sooners will already be off to a better start than they were a year ago.
OU’s opening night loss to Sam Houston last November was a harbinger for a disappointing season at Lloyd Noble Center. The Sooners can get off to a better start by simply handling Central Michigan Monday.
What’s the pitch to the fanbase?
It’s a fair question.
Moser hasn’t delivered an NCAA Tournament appearance yet. His teams have played broadly boring, slow basketball. The faces from year-to-year, once again, are not familiar and Lloyd Noble Center continues to be a sparsely attended, quiet venue on most nights.
Well, the 2023-24 Sooners are certainly more athletic. They’re probably much better balanced. They’re supposed to play more up-tempo basketball. And it’s at least worth noting that Moser has never felt better about the roster he’s assembled in Norman than he does this year.
“I said I want speed, I want some shooting, speed, some length, athleticism. If my staff was here they could say ‘Oh my God those meetings of what coach was saying in the meetings where we wanted to address,’ and I thought we addressed it,” Moser said. “I thought we did more in the spring recruiting transfer portal than we have done in my first two years.”
Can the Sooners compete in the Big 12?
The Big 12 still remains the toughest, deepest conference in the nation.
Can the Sooners outperform their preseason selection as the 12th-best team in the conference? Certainly. Can they break into the upper half of the 14-team league? It’ll be tough, but having developing newcomers Cincinnati, UCF and BYU on the schedule could help.
Moser is confident in the experience and size OU has this time as the Sooners prepare to embark on their final run through the Big 12.
“I think this league has been long, athletic, old,” he said. “I just think what we’ve done for that is I think we’re older, we’re longer, and we’re faster.”
Can the Sooners reach the NCAA Tournament?
That’s the question. Fair or not, it’s how Moser’s third season at OU will be measured.
After reaching the NIT in his first season, Moser and the Sooners slid back with a sub-.500 finish in 2022-23. Can OU finally reach the 64-team field in Year 3?
Seven Big 12 teams made the NCAA Tournament a year ago. As of Nov. 6, 2023, it’s hard to imagine OU cracking that group. Yet with so much unknown about the Sooners and the greater college basketball landscape, anything seems possible at the dawn of a new season.
The pressure around the program could fade instantly with an NCAA Tournament appearance. Moser knows that better than anybody.
Where does Moser’s job security stand?
Come April, Moser will be three years into his run in charge of the Sooners. He’s well-liked by his players. He has good relationships with the OU administration. Moser’s the perfect voice to be pushing for a new arena in Norman.
Winning, on a large scale, is all that’s eluded him to this point. And that’s one thing that could threaten Moser’s future with the Sooner beyond this year if 2023-24 goes sideways.
That said, Moser begins his third season on pretty safe ground. He’s not yet halfway through the five-year contract he signed in April of 2021 that pays him $2.8 million annually. The buyout on that contract doesn’t drop significantly until the end of OU’s initial season in the SEC in 2024.
Moser’s seat could get hot with another disappointing season. As things stand, he’s in a safe spot even as pressure mounts on the Sooners to make a postseason return.
Can Sooner fans do their part?
Speaking to donors at a recent event, Moser pointed out that there is not a winning program in the nation that doesn’t have a home-court advantage.
He’s yet to put a consistently attractive product on the court, but Moser is not wrong. OU fans have a role to play in the turnaround in 2023-24 and improving on the reported average attendance of 7,105 from last season would represent a start.
Moser is responsible for the team on the floor. But Sooner Nation must do more than wait for a new arena in Norman before it starts showing out for its men’s basketball team.