NORMAN — Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger looked at his team and scowled.
Rare for a man who hardly raises his voice, yells — and seldom scowls.
But this was the final practice in Norman before the start of Big 12 men's basketball play. On Saturday, Oklahoma will play West Virginia for the second time this season (the first was a non-conference contest at the Old Spice Classic). The first conference game between the teams tips at 3:01 p.m. in Morgantown, W. Va.
At 3:02, there's absolutely no looking back. OU will have a schedule that includes nine more games away from Lloyd Noble Center; a win here and there will do nothing but help the Sooners' NCAA Tournament bid.
That's why practice was visibly different, even if Kruger didn't think so.
“I don't know that it's changed noticeably,” Kruger said. “The start of Big 12, there's a little bit of a different edge to everything. I think across the country when you start conference play, it goes up a notch. Not intentionally, but it's just human nature.
“Not that the pre-conference stuff is less important, but the conference stuff takes on a little more significance because now you've got standings and the round-robin in the Big 12.”
But the last few days of practice were different. More players were holding each other accountable in practice. It seemed the trend was to stare someone else down.
Even senior Steven Pledger said Kruger's coaching tactics had changed.
“Big 12 season is coming up,” Pledger said. “It all counts now.”
So was that non-conference Lon, and this is “Welcome to the Big 12” Lon?
Pledger slowly grinned, looked down and nodded.
“Yeah,” the senior guard said. “He's more intense. More fire. More sternness.”
Romero Osby called the practice “amped up.”
“Getting ready for Big 12, it's going to be different.” Osby said. “The games are going to be way up here, and the level is going to be high, especially the intensity level.”
For the first practice this season, freshman Buddy Hield, who is known for constantly talking whether he has the ball or is even on the court or not, was outtalked by his head coach.
“Here we go Sam. Now we go here. Look. Look. Now over here. Move. Move. Move.”
Kruger's coaching became the background soundtrack to the practice. The second-year coach would spread his arms wide as he watched his starters defend and then he'd stop the play and call them all back when he saw something to improve upon.
Sometimes in a game, when Kruger sees something his team does wrong and he calls a timeout, his brow will furrow. He'll look like he's about to yell, then in a split second something changes. Instead of yelling, Kruger begins to clap and encourage his players.
By the end of practice, Kruger was clapping and smiling at his players as they smiled back, but a few of the Sooners said they could tell practice had changed.
Lon Kruger meant Big 12 business.