Oklahoma Basketball: 7 Reasons This Year's Version of the Sooners Will Be Better
Oklahoma hasn't finished over .500 since Blake Griffin left for the NBA, and they haven't been to a postseason tournament in three years.
Oklahoma fans are looking for something to root for, and Kruger is trying to right the ship in a hurry.
Here are seven reasons why this year's version of the Sooners will be better than expected.
NOTE: All stats (prior to Nov. 28) are provided via Soonersports.com
Trio of Experience
Pledger and Osby were named to the Honorable Mention All-Big 12 Team last season, while Fitzgerald averaged 12.1 points and five rebounds per game. They made up three of Oklahoma's top four scorers, and each finished in the top four in rebounds as well.
Pledger should be the team's best scorer after averaging 16.2 points per game last year. He fits perfectly in Kruger's up-tempo style offense.
Osby returns after averaging 7.3 rebounds per game a year ago, and with more comfort in Kruger's system, that number should continue to go up.
Fitzgerald might become more of a role player in the up-tempo offense, but he'll continue to be one of the best players on the team. He can score, rebound and is one of the team's better defenders.
Oklahoma will be much-improved defensively, mainly due to the size and athletic ability of their frontcourt.
Lon Kruger's Sooners will feature three post players that can change games defensively. Seniors Romero Osby and Andrew Fitzgerald and transfer Amath M'Baye all average over a block per game through five games this season.
The frontcourt trio can rebound as well. They average over 17 rebounds combined this season with Osby and M'Baye combining for over 13 in the starting lineup.
Fitzgerald and Osby carried the load last year, playing without a true backup. Now that they have a third player in the mix, it can help them defend the lane. It institutes a rotation, and with rotation comes rest. Rest can be a huge factor defensively for big men.
Young, Athletic Pieces to the Puzzle
Lon Kruger's offense is up-tempo and he likes to push the pace. In order for it to work, there has to be the right pieces to the puzzle at the guard positions.
Kruger brought in three athletic guards in Oklahoma's 2012 recruiting class. Four-star recruits Buddy Hield and Je'lon Hornbeak and 3-star Isaiah Cousins have owned the majority of the minutes to start the season. Kruger seems confident that his young recruits can handle the up-tempo pace already
Hornbeak and Cousins have started every game this season and are averaging over eight points and 5 assists per game. Hield is averaging over nine points and three rebounds per game as well.
Kruger's strategy is to push the ball and in his second season he will have the pieces of the puzzle set in place.
Depth Problem Solved
With Lon Kruger's first recruiting class on the court, the Sooners have partially solved their depth problems from a year ago.
Kruger has played nine guys over 15 minutes per game through the first five games this season. Last year, seven players averaged over 15 minutes with three players averaging over 30.
Two freshmen, Je'lon Hornbeak and Isaiah Cousins, have started every game this year while two veterans, Sam Grooms and Cameron Clark, have come off the bench. Junior Amath M'Baye, a transfer from Wyoming, is the starter at forward, moving Andrew Fitzgerald to the bench as well.
Bringing Fitzgerald, Clark and Grooms off the bench could turn out to be a blessing for Kruger and Oklahoma. It shows the team's leadership when three veterans take on different roles. Plus, it shows how much depth they have with three former starters on the second unit.
Comfort in the System
Lon Kruger's philosophy isn't complex, but it's completely different than Jeff Capel's.
Kruger likes to get the ball up the court and allows his players to take shots when available. They also play a more intensified defense, looking to force steals and get into the fast break.
Capel liked to run half-court sets and believed in letting the offense produce the best shot available. He relied on his frontcourt defensively. His guards were never great defenders.
Kruger changed everything in year one, except the roster. He coached his first season with Capel's recruits and still created optimism around the program.
Now he has his recruits mixed with a bevy of experienced players who became more comfortable throughout last year.
A coach's job becomes much easier when some players can help ease other players into the system, and now that he's got one year under his belt, Kruger can enjoy that luxury.
Down Year in the Big 12
Oklahoma has a chance to take advantage of a weak Big 12 Conference. If they just take care of business, last year’s record can easily be turned around.
As of November 28, there are only two Big 12 teams in the AP Top 25: Kansas (10) and Oklahoma State (15).
Other than the Jayhawks and Cowboys, there really isn’t a team Oklahoma can’t compete with. Baylor, Texas, West Virginia, TCU and Kansas State aren’t expected to be competitive. Iowa State and Texas Tech should be decent, but not much better than the Sooners.
Losing Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC helps as well. The Sooners dropped four tough games off the schedule thanks to last year’s conference realignment.
There's not a lot in the way of Oklahoma finishing over .500 in the Big 12, and if they do that, they should make the NCAA's.
Kruger Is a Winner
Lon Kruger is quietly a winner.
He’s won everywhere he’s coached.
He led Kansas State to the NCAA Tournament four years straight, including an Elite Eight appearance in 1988. He turned Florida around in the '90s and led the Gators to the Final Four in 1994. He took Illinois to the NCAA Tournament three out of four years, and took UNLV to the NCAA's four out of five years.
He seems to have a knack for turning programs around. He turned Florida and UNLV around, and now they are two high-profile programs.
Oklahoma fans can take refuge in the fact that Kruger hasn't had back-to-back losing seasons since 1985 when he was the head coach at the University of Texas-Pan American. In 1998-99, Kruger's Illini went 14-18 before righting the ship with a 22-10 record in 1999-2000.
Kruger is 494-320 in 26 years with six different schools.