Graduate Guards Ready for Immediate Impact

John Rohde
By John Rohde
Special to SoonerSports.com

Although graduate transfers technically are newcomers, they are far more advanced than freshmen or undergraduate transfers. This is why the Oklahoma men’s basketball team anticipates significant contributions this season from fifth-year transfer guards Aaron Calixte and Miles Reynolds.

“The one advantage of being fifth-year seniors is you can skip a lot of the freshman stuff,” said Sooners assistant coach Kevin Kruger. “They’re mentally more approachable with ‘This is how it’s done here’ instead of just beating their head up against the wall. Fifth-year seniors are more open to adapting and blending in with what you’re doing.”

Unlike the previous three seasons, this year’s OU roster is loaded with upperclassmen, featuring six seniors and the first two graduate transfers in the program’s history.

As the pair of guards arrived on campus in June, the play clock began ticking immediately.

"The culture and tradition at OU is something I really liked when I came here. The love from the fans, the administration, the higher-ups here was something I couldn’t even imagine. Plus, playing for a legendary coach and six seniors having the same goal I have, kind of seemed like the perfect fit."
- Aaron Calixte

“When I came on my visit, I felt a good chemistry with the guys,” the 23-year-old Calixte said. “I felt it from the jump, so that kind of helped my decision going forward. The biggest thing in transition for me was just getting the guys to trust and listen to what I had to say. Once they saw this was all about the team and not just for my own interests, it became easier after that. Building a relationship outside of basketball was really important for me coming in. That relationship is there and continues to get better.”

The 23-year-old Reynolds said he essentially decided to sign with the Sooners during an open gym session with players last April. “Right then and there I knew this is right where I wanted to be,” he said.

As fate would have it, Kevin Kruger was the first notable Division I men’s basketball player to utilize a new NCAA rule that allowed graduates to transfer to another school without losing a season of eligibility as a penalty.

After playing three seasons and earning a criminal justice degree at Arizona State in 2006, Kruger transferred to UNLV to play for his father, Lon Kruger, who coached there for seven seasons before coming to OU in 2011. Kruger averaged 13.5 points, a team-high 5.1 assists and had a team-best free-throw percentage of .835 to help lead the 2006-07 Rebels to a 30-7 record and the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 1991.

Who better to recruit potential graduate transfers than one of the founding members?

“I think that might have been something that perked his ears up a little bit, being that we had that in common,” Kruger said of recruiting Calixte.

Kruger is no stranger to what Calixte is experiencing at that stage in his career. “I could see it in his face what he was feeling,” Kruger said. “On his visit, I could see it. I could see it on his first day of summer. I could see it in the first week of school. I just knew exactly what he was going through.”

Calixte adjusted quickly, which impressed Kruger. “It was cool to see,” Kruger said, “but at the same time, there’s a lot of anxiety built up there.”

Reynolds and Calixte relocated to Norman in June and immediately joined their new teammates both on and off the court.

“We got more comfortable with each other every day,” Reynolds said. “We have a lot of fun. I’ll basically be out of here in six months, so I had to hit the ground running – not just basketball-wise but as a person making sure the guys could trust me off the court and also trust me on the court.”

Calixte and Reynolds both redshirted the 2016-17 season, are in their final years of eligibility and arrived in Norman having already earned their bachelor’s degree from Maine and Pacific, respectively.

The 5-foot-11, 179-pound Calixte redshirted when he suffered a season-ending foot injury after playing just five games his junior season at Maine. The 6-foot-3, 176-pound Reynolds redshirted when he transferred from Saint Louis after his sophomore season and was forced to sit out his first season at Pacific under NCAA undergraduate rules.

Despite enduring a 24-100 record at Maine, Calixte said he would have returned had head coach Bob Walsh been retained.

“That kind of sealed the deal, me leaving,” Calixte said of Walsh being fired after his fourth season.

Like Calixte, Kruger also decided to transfer when his head coach (Rob Evans) was let go at ASU. “It never would have even crossed my mind had he not been let go,” Kruger said. “It just kind of made more and more sense and I ended up transferring.”

After a .194 winning percentage at Maine, Calixte said he looks forward to making a postseason run in March with the Sooners, who are three seasons removed from a Final Four appearance and have advanced to the NCAA Tournament five times in the last six years. “I feel like we’re in great position to be in the tournament and make some noise in the Big 12,” Calixte said.

Lon and Kevin

Kevin Kruger was the first Division I men's basketball player to utilize the graduate transfer rule, helping lead UNLV to the Sweet 16 in his lone season in Vegas.

Had he not chosen the Sooners, Calixte said he likely would have transferred to Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, which is coached by 14-year NBA veteran and three-time All-Star Dan Majerle. Instead, Calixte opted to play for a future National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame coach in Lon Kruger.

“The culture (and) tradition at OU is something I really liked when I came here,” Calixte said. “The love from the fans, the administration, the higher-ups here was something I couldn’t even imagine. Plus, playing for a legendary coach and six seniors having the same goal I have, kind of seemed like the perfect fit.”

Gone is Sooners point guard Trae Young, the No. 5 overall pick in June’s NBA Draft who last season became the first player in history to lead Division I in scoring (27.4) and assists (8.7), which earned him the Wayman Tisdale Award as the nation’s top freshman.

Kevin Kruger said it’s far too early in practice to forecast playing minutes for Calixte and Reynolds, but the obvious question is how do you possibly fill the void left by Young?

“Any time you lose a guy like Trae, there’s some question marks, for sure,” Kruger said.

Calixte led the Black Bears in scoring (16.9), assists (3.2), 3-point percentage (.386), free-throw percentage (.899) and minutes (33.2) last season, but it was his defensive skills that captured Kruger’s attention during the recruiting process.

“He’s incredibly strong and quick and he can really guard people,” Kruger said. “He can get down and slide his feet. He can really shoot it and he’s really quick.”

“I take huge, huge pride in locking in on defense and not letting my man score,” Calixte said of his defensive prowess. “That’s something the team can feed off of and help us win games.”

Meanwhile, Pacific finished with a 14-18 overall record in 2017-18 and closed out the season with four straight losses. That’s when Reynolds, who averaged 13.3 points, 2.8 assists, 2.6 rebounds and a team-best 3-point percentage of .377 last season, decided it was time for a change of scenery in his final year of eligibility. “I wanted to take a different route and really make that push in the NCAA Tournament for a deep run,” he said.

It didn’t take long for Reynolds to make his mark with the Sooners this offseason. In a preseason poll of OU players, Reynolds was voted “best vocal leader” and one of the team’s “best leaders by example.”

“I take pride in being a good teammate,” Reynolds explained. “I’ll be there for them. I’ll be their No. 1 fan regardless of how we’re doing. Being mature as an older guy on the team, I didn’t think I’d have a problem with that because fitting in is something I do pretty well. All the guys here are selfless and they listen. They voted me best leader, but I give all the credit to them because they like being led. I’m not leading them like bossing them around. I’m just trying to maximize our success as a team.”

Despite having the oldest roster in the conference, the Sooners were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 coaches’ preseason poll.

“Playing in the Big 12 is special, especially right now,” Kruger said. “This past decade is about as tough as it can get. There are a lot of similarities with Aaron and Miles in what they get done, but they get it done in different ways. Miles is really deceptive with quick bursts of speed. He’s a really good finisher and loves drawing contact. With Aaron, you almost can’t catch him. They’re going to be a lot of fun. They’re not here to save the day, but they’re not here to be backups or garbage-time guys, either.”

Though Calixte and Reynolds didn’t meet until June, their bond was immediate.

“I feel like we’re almost like twins,” Calixte said. “I feel like I’ve known him for a long, long time.”

Reynolds agreed and added, “Aaron’s been great. He’s been phenomenal to me and the team in general. A real team-first guy and a really good basketball player. He’s just a real selfless guy. When somebody else is having success, Aaron is as happy as anybody for that guy. That’s going to take us a long way. Aaron’s my brother. I love that guy.”

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