NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger has done about everything in his stellar college coaching career except win a national title.
He has guided five different programs to the NCAA Tournament, among them a Kansas State team that made it to the 1988 Elite Eight, Florida to the Final Four in 1994, UNLV to the Sweet 16 in 2007 and Oklahoma to the Sweet 16 last year.
This high-scoring Oklahoma squad gives the 63-year-old perhaps his best shot at winning it all. Led by national player of the year candidate Buddy Hield, the Sooners enter the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 seed in the West Region and will open tournament play Friday against Cal State Bakersfield.
“It’s a great time of year, and we are excited about the opportunity that lies ahead,” Kruger said.
The Sooners appreciate the chance to play at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, just 21 miles from their home court in Norman, but Kruger’s been around long enough to know that location isn’t everything.
“All that means is we don’t travel very far,” he said. “We’ve got to line up and play. The guys understand that. When you get to this point, you know that the teams you play against are all good quality and we’ll have to play well.”
There are plenty of reasons for Kruger and Oklahoma’s fans to believe the Sooners will play well. Oklahoma won its first 12 games this season, including a 78-55 win over then-No. 9 Villanova in Hawaii, and later ascended to the top of the AP poll. In all, the Sooners have eight wins over ranked teams.
“If you look at the body of work, we’ve had a lot of good wins against top 50 teams,” Kruger said. “I guess quality of schedule — you’re in the Big 12, you have a good start right there, playing against a lot of ranked teams night in and night out.”
Oklahoma rebounded from a skid in February in which they lost three of four by winning five of their last seven, including three over teams ranked in the Top 25.
Even after the Sooners squandered a 26-point lead late in the season against Baylor and had to rally for the win, Kruger remained calm.
“We haven’t played great the whole time, but it’s not like the ship’s burning,” he said. “We had a lot of good stretches of play. He had our best stretches of play over the last month, and we’ve also had two really bad stretches of play. So we’ve got to kind of focus on both and learn from one and try to do the other better.”
For a while, any win was something to celebrate at Oklahoma, which went 27-36 combined in the two years before Kruger took over in 2011. Now, the Sooners are in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year.
One reason is likely the fact that Hield, Ryan Spangler, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard have started 100 consecutive games together. Kruger praised the seniors — Hield, Spangler and Cousins __ after the loss to West Virginia in the Big 12 semifinals, and gave them credit for making his job easier.
“They’ve changed the culture, without question, not only on the court, obviously in terms of wins and points and rebounds and all that,” he said. “They’ve been fantastic. But just their work ethic, their investment, the way they’ve represented the university in the community, on campus __ they’ve been unbelievable.”