Lon Kruger has made his mark on the college basketball world as a master rebuilder. Throughout his career, he has inherited struggling programs and taken them as far as the Final Four in a short number of a years. While Kruger’s turnarounds have traditionally occurred at new schools, the seventh-year head coach at Oklahoma now looks to continue his rebuilding success with his own program in Norman.
Kruger’s success at Oklahoma has been evident throughout the country, taking a Sooners team that went 27-36 (.429) in the two seasons prior to his arrival to reaching the Final Four just five years into the job. Since 2011, Kruger has racked up four NCAA Tournament appearances, coached three NBA Draft picks and a national player of the year (Buddy Hield) and was named the 2014 AP Big 12 Coach of the Year.
Much of the Sooners’ success under Kruger is credited to his coaching and mentoring of a core group of players. Oklahoma saw a unique level of consistency in its lineup as Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler and Jordan Woodard started in 105 consecutive games together from 2013-14 through 2015-16. Over those three seasons, the Sooners went 76-29, won six NCAA Tournament games and reached the 2016 Final Four.
After the three-year run of the “four horsemen”, the trio of Cousins, Hield and Spangler graduated in 2016, giving Kruger one of his youngest rosters to date in the 2016-17 season. With so many players receiving significant minutes for the first time, the 2016-17 Sooners finished the season 11-20, missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years. The Sooners showed incredible potential despite the final record and had a chance to win in the final minutes of almost every game, with ten OU losses being decided by six points or fewer.
"I think everyone was extra motivated in the spring and summer, and they’ve really transferred that disappointment into a little extra focus, a little extra commitment – conviction with things that we do to make progress and make improvements. I like the attitude of the guys. I like the fact that they are focused on playing better basketball and doing things better together."
-- Head Coach Lon Kruger
Luckily for Oklahoma fans, Kruger has shown a notable trend of bouncing back and rebuilding. Since 1986 (his first season as head coach at Kansas State), Kruger has never missed the postseason in consecutive seasons. Of the past six instances that Kruger failed to reach the postseason, five of his teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament the next year. Given the glimpses of potential he saw out of his young team in 2016-17, that’s a pattern Kruger is committed to continuing.
This year’s roster is still young – featuring nine underclassmen and only one senior – but returns six of its top eight scorers from last season. Additionally, Kruger added his best recruiting class since coming to Oklahoma. Despite its youth, OU still boasts experience in the annual grind of Big 12 play.
“Although last year wasn’t a positive in terms of winning ball games, we did gain a lot of experience,” said Kruger. “A lot of guys played significant roles and minutes in Big 12 basketball and learned a lot from it. Hopefully that will translate into a big jump in progress that we make and, ultimately, the results.”
Not only is the team returning experienced young players, it also offers a deep bench with plenty of competition for minutes and roles come November.
“This team has the most depth we’ve probably ever had,” said Kruger. “The competition in practice is very healthy. We can line up guys against each other and make it very productive in terms of competitiveness and working hard to get results. We’ll have a lot of different starting lineups as a result of that and different guys filling different roles and taking care of different areas of responsibility.”
Kruger isn’t the only one focused on bringing the program back to the big dance. It’s been an emphasis among his players all offseason, and a noticeable passion and work ethic has been seen in the practice gym, locker room and weight room.
“The players have a different perspective for sure coming off a disappointing season,” said Kruger. “I think everyone was extra motivated in the spring and summer, and they’ve really transferred that disappointment into a little extra focus, a little extra commitment – conviction with things that we do to make progress and make improvements. I like the attitude of the guys. I like the fact that they are focused on playing better basketball and doing things better together.”
Feb. 16 was one of the most exciting days of 2017 in the city of Norman. Sitting in front of teachers and classmates at Norman North High School, less than three miles from the heart of the University of Oklahoma campus, Trae Young announced his commitment to his hometown school. Choosing the Sooners over schools like Kansas and Kentucky, Young became the fourth McDonald’s All-American from Oklahoma to sign with OU, joining Sooner legends Blake Griffin, Wayman Tisdale and Jeff Webster.
A five-star recruit and starter in the 2017 McDonald’s All-American Game, Young is an exciting point guard with lightning quickness, deep range, creative passing and shifty ball handling. While his senior year scoring average of 42.6 points per game jumps off the page, what excites Kruger the most about his new point guard is his ability to make his teammates better.
“Trae’s got outstanding skill,” said Kruger. “He has speed out of the backcourt and can really push the ball to get the attention of the defense and create opportunities for others. Trae can also score of course, but he allows others to do the things that they’re comfortable doing. Maybe the most important thing is that Trae can take on a certain burden, if you will, and everyone around him will benefit from that.”
A McDonald's All-American, Trae Young begins his freshman season in his hometown of Norman.
Big 12 head coaches are also expecting a big debut from Young, voting him a Preseason All-Big 12 Honorable Mention selection. He was one of just two freshmen to make the conference’s preseason honors list. Young was also one of three freshmen and 20 overall Division I players to be named to the watch list for the 2018 Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award.
Joining Young on the Preseason All-Big Honorable Mention list is sophomore guard Kameron McGusty. Coming off of one the best freshman campaigns in recent OU history, McGusty was honored as an All-Big 12 honorable mention selection and member of the Big 12 All-Newcomer Team in 2016-17. His offensive game was at its best in conference play, averaging 14.4 points per game against Big 12 foes (third among Big 12 freshmen). The wing was also consistent, scoring in double figures for 15 straight games during the heart the Big 12 play.
“Kam had a terrific freshman season,” said Kruger. “This year we’re expecting him to continue to play well, in maybe a little bit different way though. He’ll benefit from more guys around him that can also score. We’ll move the ball a little bit better off the pass. Last year, we did a lot of things off the dribble. This year should be a team where a lot of different guys can create for others and make plays for others, and I think Kam will benefit a lot from that.”
Another key returner for the Sooners is junior guard Rashard Odomes. The 6-6 wing saw the Big 12’s biggest jump in role last season, starting in 30 games in 2016-17 after playing just 6.1 minutes per game his freshman year. Odomes was the only Big 12 player to average under two points in 2015-16 (1.9 points) and over 10 points in 2016-17 (10.1). His increase in scoring average (8.2 points per game) was the second-highest among all Big 12 returners and the highest among the conference’s sophomores.
Now, Odomes looks to continue his rise. In the team’s annual player poll, the Sooners voted Odomes as both the hardest worker and best leader by example.
“Rashard has probably been our most consistent player in practice from the start of summer workouts through the start of preseason practice,” said Kruger. “He’s brought a great work ethic and attitude every day to every workout. He’s consistently getting good production, rebounding the ball well and being aggressive defensively.”
Kruger also identified junior Christian James as another Sooner with a big offseason. James, who showed significant potential late in 2015-16 and early last year, struggled during conference play last season. Since the end of the season, James has been one of the team’s hardest workers and was one of the biggest standouts of OU’s foreign tour to Australia and New Zealand. While overseas, James averaged 16.3 points and shot 12-for-13 (.923) from 3-point range in four international exhibitions.
“We’re very happy for Christian,” said Kruger. “He’s coming off a year in which he didn’t get the results that he wanted, and he wanted them to help the team. We’re very happy because he’s played well, he’s played with a high level of confidence, he’s shooting the ball well, he’s making plays off the dribble for others, he’s aggressive defensively. No doubt in our minds that he’s going to line up to have a very, very productive junior year.”
Sophomore Jordan Shepherd provides the Sooners with another option at the point guard position and off the ball. Shepherd was thrown into the fire last season when Woodard’s season came to an early end due to a torn ACL. Filling in with significant minutes running the point, Shepherd displayed composure and impressive passing ability.
“Shep brings a versatility for us,” said Shepherd. “He played great in Australia and New Zealand. He was terrific in taking care of the ball and shot the ball well. He played at the point when Trae wasn’t in there and also played guard several minutes when Trae was in there at the point. He’ll give us that versatility of playing minutes at the point and also coming in and pushing the ball in transition from the wing.”
Transferring to Oklahoma is junior Ty Lazenby, one of the top scorers among junior college players last season. Lazenby was a National Junior College Athletic Association first-team All-American at Northern Oklahoma College Enid, averaging 22.9 points on .451 shooting in 2016-17.
“Ty has made progress consistently and has adapted to the pace of the game,” said Kruger. “He’s adapted to the athleticism. He’s shooting the ball extremely well right now, and he’s improved that part of it each week from the start. He stretches the floor but can also put the ball down the floor and attack the rim, too.”
The backcourt is rounded out by freshman walk-on Chris Giles.
The Sooners return just one senior on their young roster in forward Khadeem Lattin. The lone remaining starter from the 2016 Final Four squad, Lattin aims to finish his collegiate career strong. The Sooners’ leading rebounder and shot blocker last season, Lattin averaged 8.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks while starting all 31 games.
Lattin’s bread and butter has been his rim protection and shot blocking. He ranks fourth in program history in career blocked shots with 174 and begins his senior season 56 blocks shy of the program record.
Kruger is looking to his oldest and most experienced player to continue his versatility as a player and a leader.
“Khadeem’s experience is huge for us,” said Kruger. “He brings energy. He brings enthusiasm. He runs the floor. He’s making the mid-range jumper. He’s knocking down the occasional three. Most importantly, he’s got to protect the rim, change shots, rebound the basketball and dictate on the defensive end. After that, everything else will fall into place for him. That’s when he’s most effective throughout his career.”
Khadeem Lattin enters his final season with the Oklahoma basketball program as the team's only senior.
Junior center Jamuni McNeace continues to show progress each and every season in Kruger’s program. An athletic big man, McNeace didn’t start playing organized basketball until his sophomore year of high school, but is continuing to adapt to the skills of the game. Kruger is confident this could be a big season for McNeace.
“The game has slowed down for Jamuni,” said Kruger. “He’s been much more consistent in his production. He’s always shown flashes of just outstanding potential, and that’s oftentimes the case with a young player that hasn’t played a lot of basketball. Jamuni is putting together a lot more good reps each day in practice—finishing a lot more plays, much more involved on the offensive end, always very active defensively and is very aggressive. He’s blocking shots, changing shots and running the floor.”
A third option at the center position comes to the Sooners from Lahti, Finland. Freshman Hannes Pöllä stands at 6-11 and weighs 270 pounds, giving the Sooners size in the paint. He also brings a wealth of international experience to Norman, previously competing for U20, U18 and U16 Finnish National Teams.
“Hannes is a big guy that brings a different type of low-post player for us,” said Kruger. “He’s very comfortable deep. He’s very comfortable with his back to the bucket. As an incoming freshman, he’s got a lot of really good basketball ahead.”
At forward, the Sooners will be looking to fill the void left by Kristian Doolittle, who will be away from the team during the fall semester. Doolittle averaged 9.1 points and 6.2 rebounds during his freshman season as a physical forward with shooting capabilities.
One option that excites the Sooners is freshman Brady Manek, who has been impressing the coaching staff with his athleticism and knock-down shooting. A local product from nearby Harrah, Okla., Manek was rated as a four-star recruit according to 247Sports, ESPN and Scout. He averaged a double-double in his senior season at Harrah High School with 24.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists while shooting 47.1 percent from the field.
“Brady has been a surprise a little bit,” said Kruger. “We knew he was going to be a really good player, but he’s transitioned from high school to this level very quickly. We haven’t played a game yet, but in practice he’s been very comfortable. He’s shot the ball well. He’s rebounding the ball well. His instincts are good defensively – all those things that you hope to see really has evolved through practices.”
Sophomore Matt Freeman also gives the Sooners an option at forward, providing opportunities for an outside mismatch with his 6-9 height and love for 3-point shooting. Freeman showed promise off the bench on numerous occasions last year, including a season-high 15 points in the season opener.
“Matt needs to shoot the 3-pointer well for us to be most effective, and he’s doing that with much more consistency now than he did a year ago,” said Kruger. “He has a lot more confidence and is more aggressive defensively. Matt’s done a really great job and is very enthusiastic and aggressive in practice. We need that from him.”
Oklahoma also boasts a competitive group of frontcourt walk-ons in Patrick Geha, Read Streller and Marshall Thorpe.
The Sooners open the regular season on Sunday, Nov. 12 against Omaha at 2 p.m. at home. Free admission will be granted to all fans with a ticket from Saturday's OU football game against TCU. For those without a football ticket, single-game men's basketball tickets start at just $10 at the OU Athletics Ticket Office (800-456-4668) and online here.