Lon Kruger, upon accepting the head coaching position for the Oklahoma Sooners men’s basketball team in 2011, was faced with a herculean task. He would have to revive a moribund program facing potential NCAA sanctions, and uncover the hidden talents of inherited players—buried underneath years of mediocre coaching—and groom them to fit his style. He would need to recruit his own players to fill voids in the system and form a basketball team, hopefully one that could make the NCAA tournament.
This was nothing new to Kruger. He was known for injecting life into to programs on their deathbeds, as he had done countless times during his college tenure. However, this rebuilding job seemed especially daunting. Some estimated it may need a few years to come to fruition, and for a man with 28 years of head coaching experience, it could be his toughest task yet.
So, imagine the elation of the athletic department at the University of Oklahoma when, in just his second year at the helm, Kruger led the Sooners to the NCAA tournament.
The team massively exceeded expectations, winning 20 games on its way to tying for fourth place in the conference. Kruger’s first full recruiting class fit in beautifully with the leftovers from Jeff Capel’s term and set the foundation for a bright future for Sooner hoops.
Now, entering his third season, Kruger hopes to build on last season’s success. Easier said than done.
One could argue that this year is perhaps the most important thus far in Kruger’s tenure at Oklahoma, because the team is largely made up of players he recruited, and arguably is the most suitable so far to match his up-tempo style. This certainly bodes well for the Sooners.
Still, there is some uneasiness that the team will have to rely heavily on underclassmen.
Oklahoma saw a mass exodus this offseason which will leave them without their top three scorers from last season—all starters. To compensate for the losses, the Sooners added point guard Jordan Woodard, shooting guard Frank Booker, and a myriad of redshirt and JUCO post players—Ryan Spangler, D.J. Bennett, Keshaun Hamilton and C.J. Cole.
Cameron Clark and Tyler Neal are the lone fourth-year players on the roster, and will thus be thrust into leadership roles. Their bumpy experiences—which includes two tumultuous losing seasons and last season’s tournament appearance—will be very valuable. Clark especially will be crucial to the Sooners’ operation. A highly-touted prospect out of high school, Clark has underwhelmed to this point in his career. However, Kruger is a gifted developer of talent, and Clark has vast potential. In the first exhibition game, Clark scored 23 points and showed a newfound ability to sink three pointers, nailing three treys. If he is able to make the meteoric rise to stardom in his final season, Oklahoma will be a viable threat to make the postseason. Regardless, his experience alone will make him an integral part of the team.
The biggest hole for the Sooners will be right where Romero Osby left it—the post. Though Osby, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder last season, was the major loss, he was not the only one. Fellow starter, Amath M’Baye and first post player off the bench, Andrew Ftizgerald are also gone. The trio was responsible for 31.8 points and 15.5 rebounds last season, so the loss is detrimental. Don’t expect Oklahoma to replicate what it did down low last season, but, with a stroke of serendipity, they may not be far off.
Ryan Spangler did enough in practice last season to earn Osby’s approbation, and brings with him a season of D-I experience. Spangler played his freshman year at Gonzaga, where he showed flashes of potential as a rebounder, including an eight-board performance in the NCAA tournament against West Virgina. Spangler’s rebounding prowess will be beneficiary to a team that desperately needs a post presence. Joining Spangler down low is Bennett and Hamilton, a pair of JUCO players. Bennett actually joined the team last season, but opted to redshirt. The long forward is an adept shot blocker, and athletic. His primary purpose will be to swat shots in the opposite direction. Hamilton will also look to contribute on the boards. One thing this post core does not having that last season’s did is an ability to score. Perhaps one will emerge from the group during the season, but as of now, it appears the Sooners will be doing most of the attacking from the perimeter.
Buddy Hield, Jelon Hornbeak, and Isaiah Cousins will each see an increased role this season. The trio gained valuable experience in their freshmen season’s, and will look to use that to their advantage as they continue to develop as college players. With so many scorers gone, the burden will likely fall on Buddy Hield, the team’s leading returning scorer with 7.8 points a game, to put the ball in the hoop. Hornbeak will also see a bigger role, and could replace Steven Pledger as the team’s three-point specialist. Hornbeak shot 33.3% from three last season. Cousins will likely play both the point and wing positions intermittingly after logging time at both positions last season.
Hield will likely look to grow into a leadership role alongside Clark this season. His vociferous personality compliments Clark’s demure one, balancing each other out to create a perfect equilibrium. While Clark leads by example, Hield can do the talking.
Hield, Cousins and Hornbeak will look to act as a support group to younger players. They will look to pass down lessons to first year guards Woodard and Booker. Woodard appears to be the choice to start at point guard, after the Sooners fluctuated between starters last season. If he gets off to a shaky start, Woodard can turn to Hornbeak or Cousins, both of whom were thrust into starting at point guard last season, for advice. Booker likely won’t have as big of a role in his first season, but he is a skilled shooter with potential to become perhaps a minuscule version of what Steven Pledger was at Oklahoma.
All in all, this is a big season for Oklahoma. With so many of its key players gone from last season, a step back is expected, however, one should not be so quick to write the Sooners off. Last year was testament to the fact that a Lon Kruger squad should never be underestimated.
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