Lon Kruger building basketball powerhouse at Oklahoma

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger could make this the best of his many success stories.

The man who has spent three decades fixing struggling programs has done it again. Now, the Sooners are on the verge of becoming a powerhouse after three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.

With Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield returning after considering going pro and three other starters returning, Kruger’s team is expected to make a deep run after reaching the Sweet 16 this past season. Kruger, as usual, is taking a low-key approach to the high expectations.

”First and foremost, we always talk about just getting better every day,” he told The Associated Press. ”Coming in with the right mindset, coming in with the attitude of working hard every day to be great, and not getting so far down the road that you can’t focus on what you need to do to be great this week. This group has had a good handle on that.”

Kruger is the only coach to take five schools to the NCAA Tournament (Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV, Oklahoma) and four to the Sweet 16. He took Kansas State to the Elite Eight in 1988, Florida to the Final Four in 1994, UNLV to the Sweet 16 in 2007, and Oklahoma to the Sweet 16 this year.

But this is just the second time the 62-year-old coach has strung together three straight seasons with 20 or more wins, and the second time he has taken a program to the NCAA tourney more than twice in a row. Even by his standards, what he has done at Oklahoma stands out. Kruger said that is, in part, due to the tools he has to work with in Norman.

”I think OU’s brand is very strong nationally,” he said. ”Talk to anyone, and they want to find out more about Oklahoma. Not that we’ll get everyone, but we’re very selective in identifying people that want to be here, that want to be good teammates, that have a team-first attitude, that want to work hard, that want to get a degree. All of those things combined result in what we have now, in a great group of players who work hard and want to be as good as they can be.”

The magic, he says, is in the values. When he talks about working with players, he talks about family, making it clear he believes the same concepts make him successful in dealing with both.

”I think that’s one of the biggest things is just communication,” he said. ”Just talking to the players, asking how we can help. Spending time – no shortcut for time. Talk to them every day, and I think over time, they understand that we’re in it for them, that we’re about each of our guys being as good a student, as good a player, as good a person as possible.”

He certainly has the players. Hield and starters Jordan Woodard, Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins are back from last year’s team, which went 24-11 and barely lost to Michigan State in the Sweet 16. Junior college transfer Akolda Manyang, incoming freshmen guards Christian James and Rashard Odomes and forward Dante Buford, who sat out last year and will be a freshman, also should contribute.

”It’s great that we have an experienced group, and a new group that will challenge those guys to continue to get better,” Kruger said. ”It certainly will improve our depth. Depth probably last year was a shortcoming in terms of production. Depth this year should be much improved, which means you should be better able to tolerate foul trouble, injuries, whatever the case might be.”

The schedule will be rugged. The Sooners play Wisconsin, Creighton, LSU, Villanova and Memphis in non-conference play. Kruger said the Sooners loaded up because they believe they can handle it.

”Non-conference scheduling is always important, as it relates to kind of the experience of your team,” he said. ”We’ve got an experienced group. They’ve been through some good battles. They’ve been through the Big 12 now a couple of years. I think playing a very difficult non-conference schedule is good for them and will challenge them.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .