Among hundreds of comments collected about Lon Kruger last summer, one stood out from people who have known Kruger the past four decades.
Former Kansas State teammate Bob Chipman best capsulated Kruger, an under-the-radar point guard from Silver Lake, Kan., a baseball standout drafted by the pros and two-time Big Eight Player of the Year.
“I swear one day in practice you could literally see smoke coming out of his nose,” Chipman told The Oklahoman last summer. “It was the scariest thing I've ever seen. He's so intense. I've never seen anyone compete like he did every possession, every day.”
It's a mentality Kruger is trying to instill in his inaugural season at Oklahoma.
OU players last week talked about a road game at Texas Tech being an opportunity to jump start a run at an NIT berth. Instead, it was an embarrassing loss against a team that was previously winless in Big 12 play that severely damaged the Sooners' NIT hopes.
The Sooners didn't shoot well but lacked intensity and emotion.
“We have to compete harder. That's the bottom line,” Kruger said. “We didn't win many battles.”
Inheriting a program coming off back-to-back losing seasons, Kruger is trying to change the culture. There have been positives. But the loss at Texas Tech was another reminder this team has been too inconsistent energy-wise.
Kruger said players have worked hard dating back to last summer. But it's not a group that has a “smoke coming out of your nose” demeanor.
“We haven't won here in a couple or three years, including this one,” Kruger said. “We've got to do some things necessary to give us a better chance to win.
“What that means to us (as a staff) is having better habits defensively, blocking out every time a shot goes up, getting to loose balls, setting better screens, executing better. That's our objective.”
The crux of the coaching staff's message is every possession is valuable.
“He's still pushing, still harping on those things,” said point guard Sam Grooms. “He says those type of things every single day. Inside the locker room and film room he shows we have more in our tank. People are only seeing half of what (we're capable of).
“We're taking 14 or 15 plays off and losing by three (points). We were up on Kansas. We were up on Baylor. Until we knock those (bad) plays off, we're not going to win (consistently).”
Kruger has stressed a strong work ethic is only half the battle. Developing a mental toughness is essential.
“There are a lot of close games where we didn't play nearly as well as we could have,” said forward Romero Osby. “Every one of us knows we can do more. That's what he demands of us. He's trying to get to us to a point we expect to win.”
To reach the next level, the Sooners must develop some of the traits Kruger displayed as a player.
“We've made some progress but it hasn't translated into as many wins as we'd like,” Kruger said. “Everyone wants to win. There really is no satisfaction coming close. It still hurts to lose games. We have to change that.”