OU men's basketball: Bond tight between Sooners, as is their trust in Austin Reaves

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Joe Buettner, The Norman Transcript, Okla.
·4 min read
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Mar. 19—Time has slowed for Austin Reaves.

Not so much on the basketball court. It's ill-advised to take too many breaths in the Big 12.

But a year, dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has provided Reaves a unique look on life and the hoops family he's surrounded himself with since arriving at OU in 2018.

"It's a different year with all the COVID and stuff. People don't have the opportunity to be a college student, go out and hang out with a lot of different people," Reaves said. "When you hang out with someone in the organization, it's a teammate, a coaching [staff] member. It's just spending all the time with them has become really special."

The Newark, Arkansas, native started school in 2016 at Wichita State. He played two seasons with the Shockers, sat out a season in Norman and has been a starter the past two years.

He likely couldn't have envisioned, what might be, his final NCAA Tournament trip to be confined to a makeshift bubble in Indianapolis, spending every moment with his teammates or isolated in his hotel room.

OU's players have been treated to COVID-safe activities when not practicing. A photo, shared by the OU men's basketball Twitter account, revealed a badminton game between Reaves and assistant coach Carlin Hartman during a free period inside the bubble.

Asked of how he performed, Reaves replied, "We didn't keep score, but I'm not losing that one."

The tournament's COVID-19 protocols, as well as the Big 12's rules OU was required to adhere to throughout its season, brought Reaves and the Sooners together more than ever.

Perhaps it's made the ups of the season more enjoyable and the downs of it easier to get through.

"It's been a really special year through all of the COVID and stuff like that," Reaves said. "It really slows things down and puts things in perspective that you really just don't need to overlook. You grow relationships deeper than you really would have. It's taught us a lot, and it's taught us to become closer as a team."

It's also likely why the team trusts its senior guard, who's averaging 17.7 points and 5.7 rebounds, so much through 40 minutes and in late situations.

The ball often never leaves Reaves' hands in crunch time. He's delivered as the team's primary option and shouldered the blame when he hasn't.

OU, which enters the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed, has relied on Reaves, an Associated Press All-America honorable mention and All-Big 12 first team selection, to put them in a position to win. The Sooners soared as high as No. 7 in the AP rankings, in part to Reaves' leadership.

But OU, similar to its first-round opponent Missouri, has cooled off from its hot start to the year.

OU has lost five of its last six, including a Big 12 tournament quarterfinals loss to Kansas.

Assuming the selection committee accurately seeded its 68-team field, the Sooners and Tigers ought to be a close contest, likely putting the pressure again on Reaves to navigate OU to victory.

Despite the team's recent skid, the Sooners haven't lost faith in Reaves.

"When you're in that role, you're gonna miss several times, in terms of winning the game. We've been on both sides of it," OU coach Lon Kruger said. "We won five or six, just like the five or six that we lost in late February. We won those five or six earlier.

"Oftentimes, it falls on the quarterback in football. It falls on the point guard in basketball. It falls on a key guy on every team, and not many people like that role. Those that do, and Austin does, they've gotta step up and own it either way. To Austin's credit, he's battled every time."

Reaves had one of those moments a year ago when he dropped 41 points and hit a last-second shot to help OU beat TCU ahead of the 2020 Big 12 tournament that never arrived.

A year later, Reaves will try to prove himself in March yet again.

He expects no less of himself or his team.

"We can still do those things we were talking about at the first of the season," Reaves said. "Even when we went on this little losing streak, we still believed we could do those things. It's really just staying together, being prepared, playing as hard as we possibly can every possession to make those dreams and aspirations come true.

"I feel like that's what we're going to do. We're going to go down there and give it everything we have."

Joe Buettner

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jbuettner@normantranscript.com