SPOKANE, Wash. — Lonnie Kruger coached the Florida Gators to the 1994 Final Four. For 20 years, he’s been trying to get back.
And Kruger hasn’t come close. Through two more years at Florida, four at Illinois, an NBA hiatus, seven at Nevada-Las Vegas and now three at OU, Kruger has returned as far as the Sweet 16 just once. A 2007 trip with UNLV ended with a regional semifinal loss to Oregon.
Kruger, an absolute godsend for OU basketball, is either just a so-so tournament coach, or this March through madness is one difficult odyssey.
Bet on the latter.
“Outcoaching him’s out of the question,” said North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips.
The Sooners and North Dakota State meet at 6:27 p.m. (Oklahoma time) Thursday in the West Regional, and it’s a chance for OU to get its first NCAA win since the Blake Griffin era five years ago and a chance for Kruger to exorcise some NCAA demons. Kruger’s teams have gone out in the first round five times in his 14 previous NCAA Tournaments, including OU’s loss to San Diego State last season.
For a good coach at a school with lots of resources, making the NCAA Tournament is easy. But advancing once you get there, it’s hard. Real hard.
“No question,” Kruger said. “Injuries, foul troubles, good opponents, all that.” Kruger even points out that getting to the tournament is not so easy. “That’s not something to be taken for granted. When you talk about the number of good teams that had good years that aren’t there, it’s kind of a reminder that there are more good teams today than ever before.”
Like North Dakota State, one of those dreaded 12 seeds that are forever scrambling NCAA brackets. Three No. 12s pulled first-round upsets a year ago, and the Sooners are a chic pick to go down Thursday. Even Obama is on the Bison bandwagon.
The 5-12 game in the NCAA is the line of demarcation. There aren’t many true upsets in 5-12 games, and 6-11, and 7-10, and of course, 8-9. Which means a No. 5 seed basically has to win two near tossups just to reach the Sweet 16.
Nothing easy about that. Kruger has made the Sweet 16 thrice in 14 NCAA Tournaments. Seems like a dubious record. But Billy Tubbs coached OU basketball to glorious heights; he made the Sweet 16 four times in 14 years in Norman. Kelvin Sampson made three Sweet 16s in 12 years. Eddie Sutton made five Sweet 16s in 15 years at OSU.
So sure, Kruger chases the Final Four. But a Sweet 16 would be a phenomenal step for these Sooners.
Kruger coached Kansas State to a regional final in 1988, then Florida to that 1994 Final Four.
“When you go and then you don’t go the next couple three years after that, I remember it felt more empty having been there,” he said. “Time’s kind of made that a little less obvious, but still that’s the feeling. Everyone wants to go. Not as coaches as much, but having been there, you know what it means to your players, what it means to your fans and how special it is. You want your players and fans to experience that as often as they can.”
Beating North Dakota State would do wonders for the Sooners. It would be a reminder of what this program once did and could do again.
“I think that to keep building this program, we need a win and to get more wins,” said OU center Ryan Spangler.
For better or worse, college basketball is a post-season sport. Status and reputation are determined in March. The regular season really doesn’t matter.
Heck, beating North Dakota State would be a morale boost just to win a tournament game. Kruger’s teams are 0-3 in the Big 12 Tournament, along with that loss to San Diego State.
Kansas City and then the NCAA are “a bigger stage,” said OU senior Tyler Neal. “A lot of March is experience. Simply put, in the past 5-6-7 years, since Blake and those guys, we haven’t had a lot of post-season experience. So that’s what we’re trying to build.”
The Sooners have a proven coach in Kruger. His NCAA Tournament record isn’t shabby; 15-14. That’s better than Sampson’s 11-11 NCAA record with the Sooners, and most everyone accurately remembers Sampson as a good March coach.
But a good coach isn’t enough. Not in March. Not when you’re a 5-seed playing a hungry 12-seed. Not when you’re in the tournament that allows for no mulligans. Not when you’re in an odyssey that can eat the lunch of even Lonnie Kruger.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.