NORMAN — As a basketball fan, Oklahoma senior Tyler Neal can't wait for to be a part of Wednesday's game against Tubby Smith's Texas Tech team.
“There's not a lot of time when the coach down there on the other bench is going to be able to match up with Coach (Lon) Kruger so it's fun,” Neal said. “And that's no offense to any other coaches in the league but they'd tell you the same thing honestly.”
Smith and Kruger have combined to lead nine different teams to the NCAA Tournament 31 times.
They've made it to the Sweet 16 or further 12 times. Smith coached Kentucky to the 1998 NCAA Championship.
On Wednesday, Kruger's and Smith's teams will meet at 7 p.m. at Lloyd Noble Center (KOCB-34).
Since Kruger arrived three seasons ago, the Sooners immediately started playing more competitive basketball, though their win total improved by just one in his first season.
In Kruger's second year, the Sooners won five more games and made the NCAA Tournament.
“He's a technician,” Sooners sophomore guard Je'lon Hornbeak said of Kruger. “He's a perfectionist. Any small thing or any tweak that he sees in film or in a game, in practice or just working out, he comes and helps you fix it.
“You credit the little small pieces, the way he just tunes little things up before they become big things. In the beginning, you really don't see it but you really appreciate it toward the end of the season.”
Smith's Red Raiders seem to be showing signs of a similar turnaround.
With eight games remaining, Texas Tech has already won one more conference game than it did last season. The Red Raiders (12-11 overall, 4-6 Big 12) haven't won more than five conference games since 2008.
“He's done that everywhere he's been,” Kruger said. “Obviously they've bought into it. They're playing with confidence and again, they're talented and they have good players so that's a good combination.”
Texas Tech beat then-No. 12 Baylor early in Big 12 play and beat Oklahoma State on Saturday.
“He's really got them going in the right direction,” Neal said. “I don't think their record shows how well they've played this year. They've been in a lot of games and they've won some good games.”
Nearly 20 years ago, Smith could've been the Sooners' coach.
In 1994, after Billy Tubbs left Oklahoma for TCU, Donnie Duncan's top choice for the job was Smith, who had just taken Tulsa to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1955.
Smith nearly took it.
Just before Tubbs' departure, Kansas State made a run at Smith after Dana Altman took the job at Creighton.
Instead of bolting to the Wildcats, Smith instead announced that he had decided to return to the Golden Hurricane. Tulsa President Robert Donaldson announced that Smith had rejected Kansas State's overtures and signed a new five-year contract with TU.
But when Tubbs left, Duncan found out Smith had yet to sign his deal and quickly made Smith the top target.
It appeared Smith's hiring was imminent before talks broke down, Smith went back to Tulsa, and Duncan eventually hired Kelvin Sampson instead.