In his 31 seasons as a collegiate men’s basketball coach, Lon Kruger never has had one season be so contrary to the next.
His 2015-16 Oklahoma team went 29-8 overall, advanced to the Final Four in Houston and completed its season April 2 – just two days shy of the latest date possible.
His 2016-17 Sooners went 11-20 overall, were eliminated in the opening round of the Big 12 Conference tournament and completed their season March 8 – the earliest date possible.
The 18-win, 25-day discrepancy is by far the most significant one-year differential in Kruger’s career – good or bad.
“Sure, there were disappointing results,” Kruger said. “It was difficult from the standpoint of not getting results, for sure. And yet the challenge with this group was to keep their enthusiasm level up. When you’re not winning games, you still have a different type challenge, you still have objectives. You can go on, keep getting better individually and play better as a group. The good feeling, even though we didn’t get the results we wanted, is I thought they were playing their best basketball in the last three weeks. Individually, several were playing better and with more confidence.”
Due to all the experience the Sooners lost from their Final Four squad, a significant dip in victories was anticipated. OU’s 11 underclassmen this season were the most ever in the Kruger era and the most of any Big 12 roster.
Gone from the 2015-16 squad were three senior starters in consensus national Player of the Year Buddy Hield (25.0 points per game; 5.7 rebounds; .501 field goal percentage; .880 free throw percentage), guard Isaiah Cousins (12.6 points; 4.5 rebounds; 4.5 assists; 1.4 steals) and center Ryan Spangler (10.2 points; 9.0 rebounds; .547 field goal percentage). The lone returning senior this season with any experience was starting guard Jordan Woodard (13.0 points; 3.6 assists; 3.0 rebounds in 2015-16).
Armed with a unique foursome rarely seen in the one-and-done era of college basketball, Hield, Cousins, Spangler and Woodard combined to start three full seasons together – a string of 105 consecutive starts from 2013-16.
Sophomore forward Khadeem Lattin also started all 37 games last season, which meant every remaining player on the 2015-16 roster came off the bench. Freshmen Christian James, Rashard Odomes and Jamuni McNease were able to observe and practice against some talented and experienced players, but none of them even averaged double-digits in minutes played last season.
When the 2016-17 season arrived, three pillars were missing in Hield, Cousins and Spangler. The only experienced player who underclassmen could lean on was Woodard.
Alas, Woodard missed four straight games battling an injury in late December, which resulted in losses to Auburn, Baylor, TCU and Kansas State. Woodard returned for 10 games, but his season ended following surgery after tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament on Feb. 11 at Iowa State.
While the Final Four Sooners had the same starting lineup the entire season, this year’s Sooners started 10 different players, eight of whom were either freshmen or sophomores.
Last season, Hield was the team’s leading scorer in 28 of 37 games. This season, eight different players led OU in scoring in 31 games, and six of those eight were either freshmen or sophomores.
“A lot of guys got invaluable experience and a great opportunity this season,” Kruger said, “but in some cases, maybe it was a little bit more than a young guy bargained for in the Big 12. There are good sides to that and a difficult side.”
"It’s about day-to-day getting better, working hard, enjoying the process, getting into the gym and just doing things you have to do to be a good player individually or a group of players as a team."
-- Lon Kruger
Almost every OU player excelled at times this season, but the problem was being able to sustain those moments. “That was it,” Kruger acknowledged. “The lack of consistency certainly was there all year – individually and as a group. Hopefully, we’ll learn from that and grow through it and be better for it next year.”
Freshman guard Kameron McGusty earned All-Big 12 honorable mention and was named to the Big 12 All-Newcomer team, becoming the first OU freshman to earn All-Big 12 honors since Tommy Mason-Griffin in 2009-10.
McGusty scored in double figures in all but two Big 12 contests and had a streak of 15 straight games of double-digit scoring – the longest run of any Big 12 freshman and the longest by an OU freshman since Jeff Webster in 1990-91. McGusty’s 337 total points (10.9 ppg) rank 10th all-time for an OU freshman.
“He’s probably the one guy more than any other who probably took advantage of the opportunity when he got it and ran with it, if you will,” Kruger said of McGusty. “Most of the others would step forward, step back, step forward, step back when the opportunity came. You know, everyone had the opportunity and Kameron is the one who most solidly took advantage of that.”
Fellow freshman Kristian Doolittle averaged 9.1 points and 6.2 rebounds and was second on the team in rebounding behind Lattin. A product of Edmond Memorial High School (where Woodard also played), the 6-foot-7, 236-pound Doolittle averaged 9.9 points and 6.9 rebounds in Big 12 play, highlighted by a Jan. 23 game at Texas, where he scored a career-high 29 points (10-for-18 shooting from the field; 4-for-5 from 3-point range; 5-for-5 from the free-throw line) and added 10 rebounds. It was the most points by an OU freshman since Mason-Griffin scored 30 in 2010.
The Sooners played the nation’s toughest regular-season schedule, according to ESPN’s College Basketball Index (CBI). Ten of their losses came within two possessions (six points) or less, eight losses came when there was a difference of three points or less in the last two minutes, and three losses came in overtime.
“We were right there several times,” Kruger said, “but several times we didn’t finish like we wanted to. It didn’t go our way the last three or four minutes, but that’s the difference between a really good year and not. You’ve got to finish those games. We don’t dwell on that very much. It’s about day-to-day getting better, working hard, enjoying the process, getting into the gym and just doing things you have to do to be a good player individually or a group of players as a team.”
According to KenPom.com, the Sooners entered this season with the 20th youngest roster in the country (based on age and years of experience) and they had the 10th least-experienced team among college basketball’s “Power Six” conferences (ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, SEC, Pac 12). OU ranked 16th in underclassmen scoring (51.3) and 10th in underclassmen minutes played (145.7) among Power Six programs.
The Sooners expect to return 81.7 percent of their scoring next season, the most in the Big 12. They ranked second in the Big 12 in points scored by freshmen, points scored by underclassmen, minutes played by freshmen and minutes played by underclassmen this season.
“The stats are there, but it’s not like that’s going to motivate them,” Kruger said of his returning underclassmen. “We’ve got to create an environment where the guys want to be in the gym, they want to work at it, and they want to do it for each other. Those are things we feel say a lot more about winning.”
Presumably, all of this year’s pain and suffering eventually will bring back good times at OU, which recently was tabbed by The Associated Press as No. 20 in the all-time college basketball rankings (second only to No. 5 Kansas among Big 12 schools).
Sophomore Rashard Odomes scored 10.1 points per game in 2015-16 after averaging 1.9 points his freshman season.
Since 1991, Kruger has missed the postseason just four times. On all four occasions, his team made the NCAA Tournament the next season. Also since 1991, Kruger has lost 15-plus games in just four seasons. On all four occasions, his team won at least 20 games and made the NCAA Tournament the next season.
Helping the cause significantly was Wednesday’s official signing of Norman North High School standout guard Trae Young, a five-star recruit who chose the Sooners over fellow-finalists Kansas and Oklahoma State. Also in the mix were Kentucky, Washington and Texas Tech, his father's alma mater.
“In the end, I came to a place of peace and everything came together for me,” Young said during his Feb. 16 public announcement. “This is just home. This has always been home to me.”
The 6-foot-2, 170-pound Young, who averaged 42.6 points per games as a senior, is the first McDonald’s All-American in eight years to sign with the Sooners and the ninth overall.
“Trae is a guy who brings a high skill level,” Kruger said. “He has a high degree of competiveness and a high desire to be here. He’s really looking forward to joining this group of guys who he knows pretty well, given the time he’s been around them in the summers.”
A former OU ball boy during the Jeff Capel coaching era, Young said he always has felt close to the program.
“I know them pretty well,” Young said of the current Sooners back in February. “I live here, so all season I’m up there working out with those guys these past few years. This team has been having a lot of struggling moments throughout the season but have shown a lot of good signs, too. They’re very young. With McGusty and Doolittle playing like top true freshmen in the country this year, they’ve been outstanding. I can’t wait to play with those guys. … The (team’s) playing style really fit well. With them being young … it was really a perfect fit.”
Kruger admitted making sure a hometown standout doesn’t sign elsewhere added to the already pressurized world of recruiting. “It does, and yet you prefer that as opposed to recruiting in someone else’s back yard,” Kruger said. “You need to keep those guys home. Those types (like Young) don’t come along very often – anywhere, for that matter. Oh, it was extremely, extremely important that he decided to become a Sooner. It’s great fit for him. The timing is good for him. I think everything meshed well together.”
Young said he feels the same admiration toward Kruger. “Coach Kruger, I love his excitement,” Young said. “It brings out the 25-year-old in him. He’s passionate for the game. He loves the game. I can’t wait to continue to work with him.”
During the early signing period last November, Kruger signed a pair of four-star recruits in Brady Manek, a 6-foot-9, 215-pound forward from Harrah High School, and Hannes Polla, a 6-foot-11, 265-pound center from the Helsinki Basketball Academy in Finland.
“Brady is a terrific young guy who has wanted to be a Sooner for a while,” Kruger said. “He’s an outstanding shooter, has an outstanding instinct for the game and is a great teammate. Hannes has a big basketball frame that we really haven’t had before, while I’ve been at Oklahoma. He’s physical in the low post and adds that low-post presence.
“It’s really exciting. We look forward to having all of them. They really want to be here and want to make an impact. The group that’s coming back is young – still. That’s exciting, and yet we’ve got to line up and prove where we belong and get the results.”