NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Lon Kruger last coached in the Final Four in 1994. That’s before most of his current players were born.
Back then, Kruger was coaching at Florida. Bill Clinton was president, the Internet was relatively new and pagers were more popular than cellphones.
Twenty-two years later, Oklahoma’s coach has adjusted to the changes in the game and technology and has a shot at his first national title. The Sooners face Villanova on Saturday in a national semifinal in Houston.
Kruger, 63, continues to reach his young players with old-fashioned elements.
“Coach Kruger’s a great coach, and he’s very genuine, and those are things that can transcend age,” forward Khadeem Lattin said. “He’s genuine and honest. Whether you’re 100 or 12, if you’re genuine and honest, everybody kind of flocks to those kinds of people, and he’s that type of person.”
Kruger has guided five different programs to the NCAA Tournament: Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma. He led Kansas State to the Elite Eight in 1988, Florida to the Final Four in 1994, UNLV to the Sweet 16 in 2007 and Oklahoma to the Sweet 16 last year.
Now, he has received one of the most meaningful rewards for a coach — he’s watched his players work hard all year and accomplish something life-changing together. He remembers the Florida Final Four squad and said that, though times have changed, the impact of such an accomplishment is the same.
“It’s special because, even though they don’t fully realize it right now, there are some memories that they’ll have for a lifetime,” he said. “The bond that this group will have forever from going to the Final Four as a team — they don’t fully understand how powerful that is 10 years from now, 40 years from now.”
That’s the kind of wisdom that made star guard Buddy Hield comfortable when Kruger suggested he return to school after he considered leaving following his junior year.
“He can guide me if I’m struggling,” Hield said. “I’ve built up a relationship with him. I trust him. A teacher that’s been in the game so long — you can’t go wrong with that.”
Oklahoma 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 and have reached the Final Four for the first time since 2002.
Kruger’s steadiness was evident when Oklahoma hit a rough patch in February. Even after the Sooners squandered a 26-point lead against Baylor late in the season and had to rally for the win, he didn’t panic.
The Sooners bounced back and have won nine of their past 11 games. Now, there’s one more thing the players want to do for Kruger — get him that national title.
A guide to the Final Four
Buddy Hield, Oklahoma. Don’t know who Buddy Buckets is, you haven’t been following college hoops — or sports, for that matter.
Brice Johnson, North Carolina. All-American is a matchup nightmare on offense and has become a shot-blocking menace late in the season.
Josh Hart, Villanova. On a team with no true stars, Hart stands out because of how hard he plays — on every play.
Michael Gbinije, Syracuse. Need a basket, rebound, assist or steal? He’s the man for the Orange.
Marcus Paige, North Carolina. His senior season hasn’t lived up to his standards, but Paige is peaking at just the right time. Has made a big shot or two in his career.
Kris Jenkins, Villanova. Wildcats’ second-leading scorer can fill it up from long range.
Isaiah Cousins, Oklahoma. The perfect backcourt complement to Hield, he can shoot and is the Sooners’ best perimeter defender.
Malachai Richardson, Syracuse. Scored 21 second-half points against one of the nation’s best defenses (Virginia’s). That’s pretty good.
Roy Williams, North Carolina. Hall of Famer vying for his third national title.
Jim Boeheim, Syracuse. Was suspended the season’s first nine games season for NCAA violations. May have done the best coaching job of his Hall of Fame career after he came back.
Lon Kruger, Oklahoma. Only coach to take five schools to the NCAA Tournament eyeing his first title.
Jay Wright, Villanova. Proved the critics wrong by getting the Wildcats to the final dance after all those early exits as high seeds.
8—Final Four appearances by Roy Williams, with Kansas and North Carolina.
10—Syracuse’s seed in the NCAA Tournament, making the Orange the first No. 10 and fourth double-digits seed to reach the Final Four.
13—Losses by Syracuse this season, most by a Final Four team since Wisconsin and North Carolina in 2000.
16—North Carolina’s average margin of victory in four NCAA Tournament games.
19—Times the Tar Heels have reached the Final Four. This is North Carolina’s first since 2009.
22—Years since Lon Kruger last coached in the Final Four, with Florida.
29.3—Hield’s scoring average in the NCAA Tournament.
2,835—Combined victories by the four Final Four coaches.