Frank Booker is doing a difficult job exceptionally well. The Westside alum has been a pure shooting scorer most of his life. And like all of us, he is at his best when he has the opportunity to take and sometimes miss many shots and get a rhythm and comfort level on offense. But his role on what was once a nationally ranked Oklahoma Sooners team is to play several minutes in the middle of each half, and to provide an instant scoring punch. After he scored 21 points in 35 total minutes of action against three of the country's best teams, I'll say Frank is playing his role like a champ.
During his team's march past #22 UCLA and Butler (who had just upset North Carolina), and in the Sooners' championship game loss to #2 Wisconsin, the sophomore provided a spark each time that lifted his team. The boost didn't always come in the form of long range bombs. He also defended, attacked the basket, and facilitated for teammates. Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger has to be thrilled to be able to count on a versatile threat who consistently provides a lift, quickly and efficiently, and within the flow of the team's system. Here is a tour through Booker's 72 hours of action in the Bahamas during Thanksgiving week:
Wednesday, Nov 26
Oklahoma 75, UCLA 65
Trailing 15-8 and seemingly stalled by UCLA's zone defense, Kruger had an instant remedy in Booker. Shortly after checking in around the 14 minute mark, Booker buried two threes to erase the deficit. The first was from so deep that commentator Jay Bilas actually complimented the Bruins' defense for forcing such a difficult shot, no matter the result. After Frank's second consecutive make, Bilas caught on: "UCLA will have to make Frank Booker put the ball on the floor." Good idea! Frank had officially "busted" the UCLA zone and forced the Bruins to pick up man to man.
Later in the half, Booker was fouled on a three point attempt.* He made two of three free throws to log 8 first half points. He followed with another three in the second half, scoring 11 points (the team's second most) in 12 minutes of action.
*Fouling Frank on three point attempts was something each Sooners' opponent did once per game last week. Frank's name obviously has a big circle around it on teams' scouting reports. The UCLA foul came on a Booker three that was created by an Oklahoma offensive rebound. The scrambling defender knew he had to close the gap, but could not do so in time.
Thursday, Nov 27: Thanksgiving Day
Oklahoma 59, Butler 46
Frank established a rhythm shortly after entering this game, running off a double screen on the baseline and fading to the corner for a catch and shoot three. His defender made the mistake of not trailing the shooter and in trying to make up for it sent Booker to the line for three shots. After missing the first (even pure shooters sometimes need at least one or two attempts to get on track!) he sank two and then proceeded to affect the game in other ways.
Oklahoma was playing a stifling half court defense and making Butler look unable to score, and Frank's fresh legs gave the team a new energy. He spent trips guarding Butler's best players, Roosevelt Jones and Kellen Dunham, and did a great job moving his feet and keeping his hands off the dribbler. He took a charge against Dunham that put an exclamation point on Oklahoma's 21-8 first half advantage. On the offensive end he finished a layup in transition and fed Ryan Spangler for a long two on a nice pick and pop play. Butler never recovered from the Sooners' early run and it was on to the Battle for Atlantis championship game versus the nation's #2 team, the Wisconsin Badgers.
Friday, Nov 28
Wisconsin 69, Oklahoma 56
The Sooners stayed within a point of the Badgers heading into halftime. Frank made a minimal impact during the first 20 minutes. But after Wisconsin sprinted out to a 15 point second half lead, Booker checked in and instantly brought his team back to within striking distance. Trailing 57-42, Frank took a dribble hand off and made the defense pay for going under and switching the screen late, making a long three and converting a free throw after being fouled on the shot. Whether or not teams know not to give Frank daylight, it must be difficult for defenders to quickly switch mindsets when Frank enters the game in the middle of a half. I attribute his constantly being fouled on threes to this dynamic. And it can't hurt Frank's fortunes when he kicks his legs out and falls when defenders close in on his space after releasing the ball! Shortly after converting the 4 point play, Booker scored a tough left handed layup in transition to reduce the gap to 59-50.
The Sooners would not seriously threaten the team Jay Bilas calls "the Spurs of college basketball" the rest of the game. But in a field with #2 Wisconsin, #5 North Carolina, #18 Florida, and #22 UCLA, a second place finish for the (newly) unranked Sooners qualifies as a good way to spend the holidays. And Frank's 21 points in 35 minutes of Battle for Atlantis action qualifies as an A+ in my book for executing a very difficult assignment in expert fashion. Frank always has been a good student. So an A+ while on an island away from school is no surprise!