NORMAN – We all had heard about Lon Kruger.
Old-timers remember him as Lonnie, Jack Hartman’s point guard at Kansas State 40 years ago. Also remember him, along with the young-timers, as a good coach. Good schools kept hiring Kruger. He must be a good coach, right?
But we had no clue how good. We know now.
Kruger’s Sooners are one of college basketball’s success stories. A year after a surprise trip to the NCAA Tournament, OU again has far exceeded expectations. Kruger lost his three leading scorers, plus his starting point guard, off the 2013 NCAA Tournament team. Yet the Sooners are 20-8, ranked 25th in the coaches poll and might finish second in the Big 12 if they win out, which they will be favored to do, starting with the Texas Longhorns at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“He’s not appreciated across the country for what he does,” said OU senior Tyler Neal.
This is nothing new for Kruger. He’s done this all across America and across 30 years. Pan American. K-State. Illinois. Florida. Nevada-Las Vegas. Now OU. The script does not change. Kruger takes over a program in some sort of disarray, and in a short amount of time, basketball is thriving again.
“He is the perfect guy at the perfect time” in Norman, said Kansas coach Bill Self, after his Jayhawks survived the Sooners 83-75 Monday night in Lawrence. “He can really coach.
“I had the privilege of following him at Illinois. I know first-hand how those (Illini) kids were trained, and I know first-hand what a class guy he is. I think there wouldn’t be very many guys in America (better) to follow in a coaching job than Lon. He is great for our league and certainly one of the better coaches in America.”
Kruger took Kansas State to the doorstep of the Final Four and took Florida across that threshold. But this season ranks among Kruger’s best coaching jobs.
In 15 Big 12 games, OU has been the underdog in 11. Go back and read that again. Las Vegas odds have favored the Sooners only four times in conference play. But the Sooners are 9-6 in the Big 12.
All that with a team starting three sophomores and one freshman. The three double-digit scorers from last season – Romero Osby, Steven Pledger and Amath M’Baye – plus point guard Sam Grooms are gone.
No matter. Kruger has fashioned a team that has won in Austin, Waco and Stillwater. A team that made up deficits of 11 points in the first half and nine points in the second half to take leads at Kansas.
“The guy’s just a genius,” said Oklahoma senior Cam Clark, who averages 15.3 points a game, more than double his average of last season. “He’s been doing this all his life. He never steered us wrong. We just all pay attention to it and buy in. It’s been paying off.”
And the future is bright. All these young guys, such as Buddy Hield and Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard and Frank Booker. With Kruger at the helm. OU basketball is in its best shape since the Kelvin Sampson heyday.