Welcome back big-time, high-stakes Bedlam.
How we've missed you.
It's been four years since the men's basketball teams from Oklahoma State and Oklahoma have played when both squads had much more than bragging rights on the line. During the series swoon that dates back to a Bedlam for the ages at the Big 12 Tournament in Oklahoma City, the programs struggled and the rivalry hit rock bottom. It produced a string of meaningless games.
Nothing worse than that.
But now, we've got a Bedlam game that means something.
And we've got Travis Ford and Lon Kruger to thank for it.
When both coaches were hired — Ford at OSU in 2008 and Kruger at OU in 2011 — they were charged with rebuilding their respective programs. Win more games. Return to the NCAA Tournament. Contend for a Big 12 title.
Darned if both of them haven't resurrected their programs.
Since 2000, there have been only 17 teams from BCS conferences that have finished with a losing record and an RPI of 120 or worse that have reached the NCAA Tournament the next season. If OSU and OU make the NCAA Tournament as expected, both will join that group that made big-time turnarounds.
Getting to this point hasn't always been pretty. Rebuilding never is.
“It's no easy task,” said Billy Tubbs, the former Sooner coach who spent his career rebuilding programs. “It's no quick fix.”
But it starts with players.
In their first seasons, Ford and Kruger were playing with other coaches' players, who were recruited to other coaches' tastes and signed to play other coaches' styles. And in both cases, they made due. OSU squeaked into the NCAA Tournament in 2009, Ford's first season, while OU improved its win total by a game last year in Kruger's first season.
Make no mistake, even slight improvements in Year One are difficult. Tubbs won nine games with Dave Bliss's players in his first season at OU; he figures had Bliss still been coaching those guys, the Sooners would've won twice as many games.
In that first year, attitudes can be changed. Habits can be established. But until a coach starts to bring in his kind of players, you don't truly know how things are going to go.
That's where Ford and Kruger are shining.
Ford has a collection of players who are dangerous together. In Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Phil Forte, the Cowboys have combination of playmakers and sharpshooters who are difficult to contain. Shut down one, and the others are likely to step forward.
Admittedly, Ford signed a few clunkers early in his Cowboy tenure. Every member of his first recruiting class — players who would now be fourth-year seniors — transferred.
But now, Ford has players who have the Cowboys atop the Big 12 standings. What's more, they look poised for the future, too.
The same can be said of the Sooners.
Kruger brought in a freshmen class that has made key contributions this season. Isaiah Cousins is a starter, Buddy Hield was a starter until he hurt his foot Monday night, and Je'lon Hornbeak, who started the first 20 games of the season, will return to the starting lineup with Hield's injury.
As they've played important minutes, it has relegated the likes of Cam Clark, Andrew Fitzgerald and Sam Grooms to reserve status. Those veterans were starters last season, so they could've been sore about the move. Instead, they've continued to play hard and well for OU.
That's a credit to Kruger. He has convinced the Sooners to buy in. That is obvious in the way they play defense. This is a lock-down bunch.
“I think their defense is good enough to beat anybody in the conference,” said Tubbs, who's seen several OU games in person this season. “And when they're on offensively — and that's the key for anybody; can you make shots? — they have a legitimate shot at beating anybody at any place in this conference.”
Tubbs has high praise for Ford and the Cowboys, too.
“I really like their team,” he said. “I think they're a little more consistent (offensively). And they're very athletic. See, you've got three guys out there that you've really got to guard and put pressure on them.”
For their part, neither Ford nor Kruger take credit for what is happening with their programs.
“We have some good players, but we also have some really good guys who are committed to the university, committed to the team,” Ford said. “It's a young team, but we have the right chemistry.”
Kruger said, “We approach it the same today (as when we arrived). Obviously, the starting point is a little different because they've had some success ... but still, your approach is the same.”
Don't let the coach speak fool you.
Ford and Kruger have done much and deserve praise. They're bringing back their programs, and in the process, they've done us a solid.
They've brought back Bedlam.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.