Aug. 15, 2012
NORMAN, Okla. -- The University of Oklahoma's fall semester begins next week, and while the women's soccer and volleyball teams get started with their seasons right off the bat, preparations for the 2012-13 OU men's basketball campaign will also be getting underway.
Second-year head coach Lon Kruger has much to look forward to this season, with the return of his top six scorers and OU's largest senior class (five players) since 1993. Factor in a talented and eager group of newcomers, and the chances for a breakout season seem likely.
Kruger recently sat down with SoonerSports.com for the following Q&A, in which he addresses the status of his program and the upcoming campaign.
Q: You've had some time now to reflect on last season. Looking back, how would you sum up your first year at OU?
A: "Our guys did a good job. It wasn't a case of us winning as many games as we would've liked, but they worked hard, they competed, handled things off the court very well and did a good job in the classroom. I think now they have a much better idea of what it's going to take to make progress and to take the steps necessary to win more ball games. Our core of guys returning -- the leadership -- will be pretty strong."
Q: Do you like where the program stands right now?
A: "What you're always looking to do is improve that starting point -- each week, each month, each year. We return most of our guys from last year and have a good influx of newcomers. So we like the fact that our starting point is a step or two up from last year. So now our goal is to do the same thing next month, next year, and keep improving that starting point."
Q: What did you think were the team's biggest deficiencies last year, and do you feel better about those areas heading into this season?
A: "We worked hard but we didn't really compete as hard as we needed to in order to get loose balls, to get stops, to get rebounds. It's not a result of lack of effort as much as just not competing for the result and doing whatever you have to in order to be successful. I think we've improved in that area, but we've got to be more physical. We've got to be tougher both mentally and physically on both ends of the floor."
Q: From what you've seen so far, do you think this team has the ability to do that?
A: "This team will take a good step, no question about that. Again, with the group of core guys returning and a nice influx of athletic ability and guys who can make plays off the dribble, I think we have much more competition internally. That will be healthy."
Q: You came to OU with a reputation of playing an up-tempo style offensively and in your face defensively. Is the makeup of this year's team one that will allow you to better play the style you like?
A: "This group will be quite a bit more athletic, certainly deeper than a year ago. We'll be more physical as a result of guys understanding what we have to do to be effective. So yeah, we'll be more aggressive in pushing the ball and be more aggressive in getting up into it defensively."
Q: You've got 17 players on the roster, a pretty large number. Is that a number that you typically carried on your other teams? What is the benefit of having that many players?
A: "Yeah, we like 16, 17 guys. Thirteen is the number of scholarships you can have, and we've got four who aren't (on scholarship) but will be critical to the success of the group. So it'll be 17 guys who give us good energy and good effort every day in practice.
"Just with our general philosophy, we like having three groups of five so you can keep the pace up in practice. If you do have an injury or two, you're still able to go with three groups of five. If you get into the season and someone needs to be held out due to fatigue or injury precaution reasons, you're able to still have those three groups and not beat each other up throughout January and February."
Q: You have to feel pretty good about the fact that you return your top six scorers from last year. Can you talk about that core group coming back and how that helps heading into year No. 2?
A: "The experience is invaluable. Regardless of what you're doing, when you have experience in something, you're better for it. Whether it's a good or bad experience, you learn from it, you grow from it. This group was right there in a lot of ball games last year but wasn't able to finish with wins in many of them. Even though that was frustrating at the time, I think we learned from it and we'll all be better for it."
Q: This marks the first time since you've been a coach you've been able to work with your players on the court in the summer. What has the new NCAA rule meant for your team?
A: "The new rule is a great addition, and not only from a basketball development standpoint. Especially with the incoming freshmen, the opportunity to be around them on the court for a couple hours a week and help them make the transition from high school to college is extremely beneficial. And certainly it's similar for the returning guys, even though they're already more comfortable."
Q: How much of a plus was it to have all 17 players on campus in the summer, going to class, lifting weights and working out on the court?
A: "Across the board it's very beneficial. And it's not just basketball. You're in class, you're working toward your degree by picking up six or nine credit hours. They're kind of bonus hours, if you will. In the past, that's the major reason all of our guys graduated. Over the course of four summers, you pick up 25 to 30 hours, on top of what you do in the fall and spring semesters. And then there's also the time spent together in the weight room and around the gym. The chemistry is better due to that time spent together."
Q: You've got eight newcomers, including forward Amath M'Baye, who sat out last year after transferring. What do you like most about this group of new players?
A: "Generally speaking, that group has energy, enthusiasm and a passion to be here. They bring kind of a wide-eyed enthusiasm and a little recklessness, which is good. They're anxious to be here and are passionate about being Sooners."
Q: With back-up point guard Carl Blair transferring, you have one returning point guard on scholarship in Sam Grooms. Can you talk about that position and about other candidates who could see time at that spot?
A: "Sam brings a lot of experience, got a lot of minutes last year in the Big 12 and did a lot of good things for us. He didn't score a bunch and didn't shoot as well as you'd want to, but did a lot of other things very well. We added freshmen Isaiah Cousins and Je'lon Hornbeak, who've both played point in high school. Both are kind of combo guards, but are very capable and comfortable at the point."
Q: There's been quite a bit of buzz surrounding M'Baye. What position(s) do you envision him playing and what challenges does he present opposing defenses?
A: "His versatility is probably what will pose the biggest challenge for opponents. He's mobile for a 6-9 guy -- allowing him to go out to the perimeter - but he's also big enough to take a smaller guy in the mid post and score over him. So just that versatility of being able to do different things on the floor makes him tough to defend. Plus he competes hard, has a passion for the game, is a good leader and takes care of business in every way."
Q: Several of the new players seem to possess a hate-to-lose attitude. Do you sense that and can that help a team?
A: "Very definitely we sense that, and it does help a lot. Sometimes when the older guys are working hard but a program hasn't won for a while, those lines start blurring a bit and you forget the edge that's required to compete and to win. I think the new guys are going to be a fresh reminder for the older guys and will be good for them. The competition internally will be a lot more intense and the competition for playing time, in a healthy way, will be a lot sharper."
Q: What are your thoughts on the frontcourt, especially in regard to the improved size?
A: "Andrew Fitzgerald and Romero Osby got the bulk of the minutes on the interior last year. I think Casey Arent has made nice strides and will give us some good support minutes on the inside. Amath will be able to swing down and play on the inside, and D.J. Bennett, coming from junior college, will be able to provide some help there. I think the depth of size is much better than a year ago."