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Lon Kruger and has rebuilt OU basketball into national title contender
Lon Kruger is at it again.
The same coach who made Pan American something out of nothing… who restored some luster to Kansas State… who made Florida fans care about something besides football… who got Illinois going again… and who put some pizzazz back in the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV…
Well, darn if this isn’t Kruger’s most impressive reconstruction project yet.
The Oklahoma Sooners recently spent three weeks atop the AP poll. Despite a pair of heartbreaking losses to Kansas this season, they remain a very real threat to the Jayhawks’ 11-year stranglehold on the Big 12 Conference championship, and are on course to grab a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
They are the are toast of college basketball, a ball-moving, jump-shooting, fast break-running scoring machine who, at their late January/early February peak, were being compared to the Golden State Warriors.
It’s only a matter of time before they crown a National Player of the Year in Buddy Hield, college hoops’ answer to Steph Curry.
Ask Kruger about OU’s remarkable season, he’ll attribute it to everything but himself.
He’ll mention his three seniors first and foremost, and glow over the example Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler have set for the rest of the roster.
He’ll mention the hours of gym time his players put in, and explain the results are simply the fruits of his players’ labor.
He’ll be sure to include his staff. That, too, is totally fair considering the time assistants Steve Henson, Lew Hill, Chris Crutchfield and Mike Shepard put into recruiting these players and then coaching them once they got on campus.
But really, OU’s 2015-16 season is a reflection of the 30-year coaching wizard in charge.
Consider the way Sooners guard Jordan Woodard once described it: “Coach thinks about stuff weeks before it happens. Plays that we’re gonna run six weeks from now, he’s already got written in his head. How advanced his mind is, it’s crazy when you experience that.”
The Sooners reflect how Kruger thinks, but more than that — they are a product of who he is.
“He makes you feel like you owe this to your team. Everything is about team and family,” Hill has said. “When you don’t go as hard or you don’t work as hard, he pushes you like you’re letting your teammates down, you’re letting your family members down. Everything you do is about team. Guys buy into that.”
Hield decided to return to OU for a senior season last April because he knew he could improve his NBA Draft stock, no doubt. But that wasn’t the only factor he weighed.
Asked the day he announced his return how much his teammates had to do with it, Hield replied: “A lot. The past couple weeks, I’ve been hanging out with them even more. I had intentions of going, and realizing how much they mean to me just being around them. Even sometimes when we were out together, I stepped to the side thinking how much these guys mean to me. It would be hard to leave these guys.
“I love being around Ryan, Isaiah, Jordan (Woodard) and those guys. They’re coming back with Khadeem (Lattin), Jamuni (McNeace) and Dante (Buford), and with ‘AK’ (Akolda Manyang) coming in and the two freshmen coming in, it’s going to be fun.
“I just can’t wait to see what Coach Kruger has in mind for next year. I know we’re going to be a really good team.”
The Sooners have been beyond really good this season, and the chemistry Hield spoke of, the chemistry Kruger promotes, has a lot to do with that.
Watch how Cousins, Hield and Woodard move the ball to each other and there is an undeniable unspoken connection. The three starting guards have made an absurdly high percentage of their 3-point shots in part because so many of them have been wide open, the result of teammates knowing where they’re going to be moving off the ball, and where they like to receive the resulting drive-and-kick pass.
Watch Spangler move to the perimeter to take advantage of OU’s pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll game. He screens, he receives and he shoots. Or he moves the ball over to an even more wide open teammate to create an even better scoring opportunity.
It’s the kind of basketball symmetry that sets in when four players have started together for three years. But also when those players adhere to the unselfish values of their head coach.
“We grew up with the idea that when you think about others and you do things for others, you’re doing it for the right reason,” Kruger has said. “We talk to our players all the time about that. It always has to be about others. And when it is, you get good results. Whether it be on the basketball court with your teammates or in the classroom with your professors.”
Another core principle from Kruger’s Silver Lake, Kan., upbringing: the value of hard work. It isn’t lost on his staff when they go look for players. They enjoy adding the occasional four-star prospect, sure, but he had better fit the Sooners’ all-for-one-and-one-for-all mold. And he had better show an interest in sweat.
It just so happens that Hield, Cousins, Spangler and Woodard embody that willingness to improve.
The day Hield announced his return, Kruger said: “We’ve said over and over he and Isaiah and Ryan and Trey (Slate, a walk-on at the time who would eventually earn a scholarship at Mid-America Christian) are in the gym more than anyone we’ve ever been around in 35 years. The four hardest workers we’ve had in 35 years are all on this team. That has so much value.”
Hield’s shot made him the 2015 Big 12 Player of the Year and a potential first-round draft pick. The hours he put in to expand his game have made him the likely Wooden and Naismith Award winner and a potential lottery pick.
Cousins, whose work habits are even more maniacal than Hield’s, has gone from a freshman who nearly melted down against Texas Tech’s pressure defense to a senior with a shot at both All-Big 12 honors and a pro career.
Woodard was a 25-percent 3-point shooter last year, so he began reporting for offseason duty at 6 a.m. The result made him the most accurate 3-point marksman in the country for a period in January.
In the middle of it all, literally, is Spangler, the steady-as-he-goes bedrock who does all of the dirty work on the boards when he isn’t joining his three buddies on the perimeter for some pick-and-pop.
It is a special core of veterans whose like Kruger hasn’t seen in those 30 years of coaching. About the only adjustment he made with them going into this season was switching Cousins and Woodard, putting Cousins on the ball so the Sooners could take advantage of both his relentless dribble-drive attack and Woodard’s enhanced outside shooting.
Otherwise, he has coached to his players’ strengths. Which, in turn, shows one of Kruger’s most underrated strengths.
“Here’s a guy that has been doing it a long time, but is willing to adapt to his personnel,” said Big 12 analyst Bryndon Manzer. “He knew he had a guard-oriented team that was talented, with guys who could make shots and take you off the dribble. He’s put them in position to play fast. That obviously was the correct decision...
“I think that shows his wisdom and his flexibility. That’s a big reason he’s had longevity in this business.”
Kruger is approaching 600 career victories. He has taken five programs into the NCAA Tournament, four to the Sweet 16 and now two to the Final Four.
And yet you get a strong sense he has never had a season like this, or a team like the 2015-16 Sooners — a beautiful basketball testimonial to teamwork, togetherness, hard work and adaptability.
A perfect marriage of coach, staff and players.
(This story appears in the 2016 Recruiting Issue of Sooner Spectator. For more information or to subscribe, call 405-364-4515)