NORMAN — Players decide who plays, says Lon Kruger.
Which explains why Steven Pledger, who had eight points in the first four minutes Saturday against Baylor, and Romero Osby, who continued his excellent production, have kept their starting jobs all season, making them in the minority among OU seniors.
And why Sam Grooms was back in the lineup, en route to a career-high 23 points.
But after the Sooners routed the Bears 90-76, maybe it's time for a salute. Kruger's restoration of OU basketball is an uncommon success story. Kruger didn't clean the house. He did something more difficult: he rearranged it.
Which made Baylor coach Scott Drew sound almost wistful in praising the Sooners.
After Drew apologized to Baylor Nation — I guess everybody has a nation these days — for his poor coaching and his team's lack of focus, Drew said he's most impressed with OU's chemistry.
A team with five returning starters has integrated newcomers into the lineup. Veterans have sacrificed. Playing time has diminished.
Yet the Sooners have shown all the dissension of the Family von Trapp. And they're being rewarded in the best of ways — a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The victory over Baylor wasn't any kind of validation, even the first-half bombardment that gave OU a 47-21 lead at halftime. But it was the latest sign that Kruger's makeover has taken root not just in the talented players he's brought to Norman, but the beleaguered troops he inherited.
“For them to put the team first, chemistry wise, it's really impressive,” Drew said.
You know the numbers. Andrew Fitzgerald, 74 career starts before this season, one career start since. Grooms, 31 career starts before this season, just two this season. Cameron Clark, 60 career starts before this season, zero this season.
“I thought it was going to work from the beginning,” said Pledger, who had 17 first-half points Saturday. Pledger has started all 26 games this season to go with the 59 starts previously, but his minutes have lessened as OU's depth increased.
Kruger credits the quality of his players' character. Usually when a coach talks like that, there's no reason to trust him. Sometimes coaches just jabber.
But in this regard, you have to believe Kruger. This is straight out of “Remember the Titans.” This is like two teams being merged.
“Our seniors are good people,” Kruger said. “They all want to play, they all want to compete for minutes. They're competitors. But at the heart of it all, they're good people. It's a credit to them.”
Kruger says it's by design that his program recruits good people. But this also is a salute to Jeff Capel. Kruger's predecessor recruited Fitzgerald, Clark and Tyler Neal, whose minutes have largely disappeared.
But give the newcomers credit, too. If Kruger was inserting a bunch of jerks into the lineup, that wouldn't work, either.
“Couldn't be more pleased by the type of people they are,” Kruger said. “It's not like they're thinking about themselves only. They're thinking about the team.”
And so the Sooners are 18-8, 9-5 in the Big 12. OU's only March Madness question is where it will be seeded.
While Drew bemoaned his team's focus, Kruger lauded his team's.
OU made six of its first 10 shots in the first 5½ minutes to take a 19-8 lead. Pledger had eight points and freshman Je'lon Hornbeak six. Eventually, Grooms (15 of 17 foul shooting) and Osby (17 points, eight rebounds) took over, and the Sooners won with ease to sweep a program that in recent years had passed them on the Big 12 food chain.
“This group's done such a good job getting each other ready to play,” Kruger said. “Opened games with good energy, good focus. That doesn't just happen. You have to prepare.”
One team did Saturday, apparently one team didn't, and it's the Sooners who are back in the saddle of Big 12 hoops.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. 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.