Kruger leads Oklahoma home against No. 22 K-State
MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP)
Lon Kruger speaks fondly of his time at Kansas State, as native sons are apt to do.
He stays in touch with folks back in Silver Lake, the small town in central Kansas where he grew up. He reminisces with teammates who together won back-to-back Big Eight championships, and the players on the teams he led to four straight NCAA tournaments as their coach.
Throughout his basketball odyssey, there have always been pangs of nostalgia whenever Kruger has had to lead a team against the Wildcats. The emotions are still that strong.
They may be overpowering on Saturday.
When Kruger takes Oklahoma into Bramlage Coliseum to face No. 22 Kansas State, it will be the first time as the opposing coach in the building where his name hangs from the rafters.
''It will be different, but that's the way it is and we understand that,'' said Kruger, who is in his first season with the Sooners. ''We'll be cheering for them on all but a couple of occasions on the year. But certainly we'll go up there and try to play as well as we can.''
It's an important game for both teams.
Oklahoma (12-7, 2-5 Big 12) beat the Wildcats last month, but has lost two straight and seen its NCAA tournament hopes virtually disappear. Kansas State (15-4, 4-3) has won three in a row since that defeat in Norman and kept its Big 12 title hopes alive.
But the importance will be only magnified considering the ties Kruger has to Manhattan.
He was a star for the Wildcats under Jack Hartman from 1971-74, helping the team to a pair of conference championships and earning Big Eight Player of the Year honors in 1973 and '74.
Kruger was even a shortstop on the Wildcats' baseball team.
He began his coaching career at Pittsburg State in southeast Kansas in 1976, and by the following year had been invited to join the Kansas State staff. He would serve as an assistant until 1982, when he left to become head coach at Texas-Pan American.
Four years later, the fairy tale appeared complete when Kruger returned to Kansas State.
''Coach Hartman had a lot to do with that,'' Kruger recalled. ''When coach retired, he was instrumental in me getting that opportunity for sure.
''I leaned on what he said as a coach,'' Kruger added, ''as a player and all that kind of tied together. There was tons of stuff that I leaned on from him, for sure. He was a terrific mentor and a terrific coach. I leaned heavily on things he said.''
After leading Kansas State to four straight NCAA tournaments, taking one of his teams within a game of reaching the Final Four, Kruger left to take over at Florida.
It left a lot of fans in the heartland feeling jilted.
Animosity has waned over time, though, as Kruger continued his journey at Illinois, in the NBA and most recently with UNLV. He led the Rebels to a win over the Wildcats last year at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, and received a warm welcome from a partisan crowd.
''I understand that he is coaching at Oklahoma, but that purple still runs through his blood,'' Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. ''He has got tremendous pride about his alma mater. I think it is going to be an emotional moment for him because I know how much he loves this school.''
Kruger won't be the only one returning home this weekend.
Steve Henson, the Wildcats' career leader in assists, is an assistant at Oklahoma. Also on his staff is Mike Shepherd, who was a team manager for Kansas State.
''As alums we've got great memories and still a lot of friends right there,'' Kruger said, ''and great relationships and former teammates. A lot of them will be there.''
That's because this weekend is also Kansas State's annual alumni reunion. Former players were invited to a social event with current players and coaches on Friday, and many of them will be in attendance for Saturday night's game.
Kruger said he doesn't expect a lot of folks to remember him when he returns, especially students who weren't even alive when he was coaching the Wildcats.
He may be selling himself a bit short.
Several guys on the Kansas State roster played with Kruger's nephew, Jarrod Kruger, who was a walk-on for Kansas State last season and is now a member of the Sooners. They're keenly familiar with one of the best players to have ever suited up for the Wildcats.
''Personally, I heard about him a lot from playing with his nephew last year,'' junior guard Martavious Irving said. ''Basically, he's a K-State great - a great player and a great coach.''
Martin said he exchanged text messages with Kruger this week, and he expects there to be a lot of emotion when Kruger steps onto the court for the first time as a coach since 1990, when he led Kansas State to a win over Nebraska in his finale.
The current coach of the Wildcats also knows there will always be a soft spot for Kruger in the Flint Hills, something that became apparent when the teams met last month in Norman.
''I just told him, before our game at Oklahoma, that there are some things that I want to visit with him about when the season is over,'' Martin said. ''And he immediately said, `Frank, all you have to do is call'. He has been tremendous to me as a coach and as a friend. I am very appreciative of that.''
AP Sports Writer Jeff Latzke in Norman, Okla., contributed to this report.