The 2016-17 men's basketball season was a glimpse into what the future of the program could be. A core of underclassmen on one of the youngest teams in the nation continued to fight and improve throughout its first Big 12 schedule when receiving significant minutes. The combination of close battles, improving stat lines and a peek into future potential will all be key ingredients for future Sooner success.
While the Sooners' featured a new-look roster on the court, the program also welcomed in two new additions to the coaching staff. Following Oklahoma's success in 2015-16, former assistants Lew Hill and Steve Henson accepted head coaching opportunities at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and University of Texas at San Antonio. The departures created the first assistant coaching vacancies during Lon Kruger's tenure at Oklahoma.
"We expect [the players] to not just fall in love with the process, but to carry it out and do some really special things moving forward."
-- Assistant Coach Carlin Hartman
Kruger adjusted his coaching roster by promoting long-time assistant Chris Crutchfield to associate head coach while filling the two open positions with a pair of up-and-coming assistants in Carlin Hartman and Kevin Kruger. Hartman, who boasted nearly two decades of coaching experience, came to Norman from Rice University, while Kevin Kruger, son of Lon Kruger, joined the Sooners after two years as an assistant coach at Northern Arizona.
The 2016-17 season wasn't just a training opportunity for the young student-athletes, but for the new staff members as well. One year into their new roles at Oklahoma, Hartman and Kruger are grateful for their own development and how they saw improvement in their own work as the season progressed.
“The first year was very enlightening and eventful for a lot of reasons,” said Hartman. “For me, having an opportunity to work at a place like Oklahoma with Coach Kruger was a dream come true situation…Obviously, we didn't get the results we wanted on the court, but for me personally it was everything I thought it was going to be and I loved every minute of it.”
“I was ecstatic to be here starting last April,” agreed Kevin Kruger. “Coach Crutch and dad were very level – they maintain the same pace going forward no matter what was happening so I think that made it kind of easier of a transition for this level.”
For Kruger, this is his second time on staff with the Sooners after serving as a graduate assistant in 2013-14. His first season as an OU assistant provided him with a whole new perspective of the program and the way his father manages his staff.
“I think that even growing up with him and even being here as a GA, it's still surprising how much time he spends and wants to spend together as a staff,” he said. “Whether it's watching film or discussing the opponent. He likes all four coaches being in there, even if it may not be somebody's scout. He just wants everything to be all inclusive and that still opened my eyes a little bit even though I had seen them from a far, but just being there every day. The days go by really fast throughout the season when you're preparing with him.”
The new roles took some getting used to, but then again it was a fresh season for everyone in the program. For the previous three seasons, the Sooners used the same starting core of Isaiah Cousins, Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler and Jordan Woodard. With three of the “four horseman” graduated and Woodard missing multiple games due to injury, the Sooners relied mostly on freshmen and sophomores who had previously received minimal (if any) playing minutes at the collegiate level.
“Last year we tinkered with the lineup so many different times, there was never really a consistent flow to it,” said Hartman. “But now, knowing our team and knowing our group, knowing who we have moving forward, it's a lot more comfortable for me in year two…Now we have a lot of film, we know our guys tendencies, and me personally I understand the language and the verbiage as far as on the court, the thing coach is trying to get done. I think moving forward, just trying to keep expanding our level of intensity in practice, our level of vocabulary, watching film consistently and just spend a lot of time with our guys so we're always on the same page.”
Kevin Kruger agreed that as time passed, the group began to stick and the consistency and comfort improved for both the team and the staff.
“When we meet with our groups individually or get back together everything just flows back together,” said Kruger. “We're all on the same page. So just continuing to blend in with Crutch and coach – they've obviously been here from the beginning and it's worked. So just continuing to follow their cues and be more integrated in how they do things.”
Both coaches emphasized that despite the team not seeing the results it wanted in games, it didn't stop them from continuing to work and improve in practice.
“I think it's a testament to Coach Kruger and a testament to what he is all about as a coach and a mentor and a program builder,” said Hartman. “We consistently kept trying to push the envelope and our guys did a really good job of listening and carrying things out. Like I said, they never gave up on the season. Even when we had two seven game losing streaks, guys kept coming to practice and kept fighting and wanting to learn and wanting to get better. I think that's a testament to the respect they have for coach and the respect they have for a program like Oklahoma. Moving forward, it's obviously going to bode well for where we think we can go with the program.”
Hartman says that hunger for improvement hasn't died down since the end of the season. The players and staff see the potential in the upcoming season and are already relentlessly working toward pushing themselves to that next level.
“From where we have been last year to where we're going to be – we can be really good,” said Hartman. “I can't predict how good we'll be because we still have a lot of work to do, but the work in terms of what they're doing right now with Bryce Daub in the weight room, what they've been able to do with us up to this point, the level of care they've shown in terms of getting better…The guys really worked their tails off even when the results weren't there. That's a great character trait for our guys. I get excited thinking about what our team is going to be this time next year...We expect them to not just fall in love with the process, but to carry it out and do some really special things moving forward.”