NORMAN — After making the NCAA Tournament just three years after the program hit unsteady ground and two years after a new coach was hired, Oklahoma could have sat back.
The Sooners could have been complacent, showed their tired side or celebrated just making it to 20 wins.
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger doesn't think any one of those attitudes contributed to the Sooners' late-season slide — but maybe a combination of all three did.
“Once you kind of get to that point where you've earned an NCAA bid — certainly that was the goal and we talked about at that point about, ‘Well let's not be satisfied with that.'” Kruger said last week. “If that was a part of it, it certainly wasn't intentional on their part.”
Intentional or not, the Sooners ended the season on a three-game losing streak — only their second multiple-game losing streak of the season. It started when Oklahoma thought it was going to beat TCU, the Big 12's worst team, only to see Sam Grooms' 3-pointer miss at the buzzer. Then came the late-game stretch where no Sooner hit a basket against Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament. Then the music to their Big Dance ended almost before a chorus could be written, when senior Romero Osby got no help but still tried to carry the team in an NCAA Tournament loss to San Diego State.
“They practiced hard and they wanted to win a tournament game and that didn't happen,” Kruger said. “They really played good basketball in February, and then certainly didn't finish playing good basketball.
“We'll learn from that and take big steps.”
Even bigger ones are need thanks to the void left by three graduating starters and the departure to the NBA Draft of junior Amath M'Baye.
Players who redshirted this season — like C.J. Cole, D.J. Bennett and Ryan Spangler — will be called upon greatly, especially to rebuild Oklahoma's now desolate post game.
After all of his years of rebuilding, Kruger, wasn't quite sure that the way this season ended for Oklahoma is the difference between a newly rebuilt team and one that has been rebuilt for years.
“Certainly our culture was not such that it was to the point of expecting that to happen,” Kruger said. “If we'd been doing this for a few years and going to the tournament for a few years, it's a totally different culture. And that's what we hope to achieve at some point — that you get to that point where just getting to the NCAA Tournament is not at all the goal but playing as long as you possibly can in the tournament.”
Although the humble Sooners coach won't come out and say it, he smiled when asked if when he accepted the position two years he thought this is where this team would be.
“Oh anytime you take over, if you make the tournament you take that and call it all in,” Kruger said. “No question.”
But despite the season-ending collapse, the 20-win season and making their first NCAA Tournament since Blake Griffin patrolled Lloyd Noble Center, the Sooners took other important things from this season, Kruger said.
“One of the things they said when we first took over the program was ‘We want to be significant on campus. We want to be significant in conference play. We want to carry ourselves differently.' And they've done that,” Kruger said.
In a two-year period, with the help of workhorse Osby and the dedication of the rest of the squad, Oklahoma's crowds grew, and students and others around campus began to look at and respect what the team was trying to do, Kruger said.
To him, it was progress.