NORMAN, Okla. (AP) - Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger doesn’t raise his voice. He just raises basketball programs.
Before Kruger arrived, superstar Blake Griffin led the Sooners to the Elite Eight in 2009. After Griffin left for the NBA, the Sooners went 27-36 the next two years combined under Jeff Capel. Kruger became Oklahoma’s coach in 2011, and now, the Sooners are heading to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year. Oklahoma seeks its first tournament win since the Griffin era Friday when the third-seeded Sooners play No. 14 seed Albany in Columbus, Ohio.
Oklahoma is the fifth school the 62-year-old Kruger has taken to the NCAA Tournament - he had previously led Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV to the Big Dance. He’s done it while displaying a low-key demeanor that is rare in big-time sports. It’s part of what drew TaShawn Thomas, who shares Kruger’s quieter approach, to Oklahoma after he transferred from Houston.
“He never really panics,” said Thomas, the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. “I think that keeps us calm. If you don’t see your coach yelling and screaming at the refs, you think you’re still in the game, if you’re losing or not. I feel like that’s one thing coach Kruger helps us out with a lot - playing with confidence.”
Kruger’s approach doesn’t mean he lets his players off easily. The delivery may be different from most coaches, but he knows how to get his message across. Players say Kruger’s version of shouting isn’t as loud as the norm, but it’s just as powerful because of the respect he has earned.
“He’s a good motivator,” said junior Buddy Hield, the Big 12 Player of the Year. “He’s always on our butts. Everybody sees him being quiet and everything, but you come to practice, he’s always shouting at me and trying to get the best out of me. He always tells me stuff I don’t want to hear. He gets the best out of me.”
Kruger brings in talent, then takes it higher. A team that was offense-minded but struggled defensively at times last season became one of the nation’s best defensive teams this season, mostly with the same players. Oklahoma ranks 14th nationally in field-goal percentage defense.
“He’s high caliber in whatever he does,” Hield said. “He teaches me in the right way. You’ve got to trust him. You come in as a freshman, and I was like, ‘Uh, what did you get yourself into,’ but I really trusted him and got to know coach.”
As is often the case with Kruger, he takes little credit for the success.
“Just more good players,” he said. “Guys that have matured with each other and the program. It always comes back to players. We’ve got a lot of options this year. More options than we’ve ever had. Defensively, we’re much improved. That’s probably the biggest change, given that these are a lot of the same guys that were here last year.”
For the first time during his tenure, Oklahoma entered the season as one of the favorites in the Big 12. The Sooners were picked third and finished in a tie for second.
“It’s a compliment to our guys’ performance in the toughest league in the country,” he said. “When you battle day in and day out in the Big 12, and you come one game back, in second place, it means we’ve had a good year - not quite as good as we would have wanted.”
Kruger’s impact goes beyond the court. Jackie Swann, Hield’s mother, said she hoped to find a place with a leader who could help turn her son into a man. Kruger was a big part of why she was comfortable when her son chose Oklahoma.
“I see, to me, an honest man,” Swann said. “A man that is humble. That’s what I see. Caring and loving. I trust him. I trust him with my son. They live, to me, as a family, and that’s what I like about it.”
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