Kruger makes Oklahoma unlikely Big 12 contender
NORMAN, Okla. (AP) Not much was expected from Lon Kruger's Sooners this season.
Oklahoma was picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 after losing its top three scorers from last season, and most of the hype around the state focused on Oklahoma State and superstar guard Marcus Smart.
Turns out, the 25th-ranked Sooners are worth a look, too. Oklahoma enters Saturday's game at Texas Tech tied for second place in league play and already has victories over ranked conference opponents Iowa State and Baylor.
Behind it all is the 61-year-old Kruger, who has made a career out of making programs better. He's the only coach to take five different schools to the NCAA tournament (Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV, Oklahoma). He took Kansas State to the Elite Eight in 1988, Florida to the Final Four in 1994 and UNLV to the Sweet 16 in 2007, and now, he's got Oklahoma rolling. He took a program that went 15-16 his first year in 2011-12 to the NCAA tournament the next year. This season, the Sooners have cracked Top 25 for the first time since 2009.
Kruger's knowledge of the game, steady approach and belief in his players are the qualities his players say make him a special coach.
''He's a cool cat, and he wants the best for us,'' guard Buddy Hield said. ''He always gives us that confidence that we're good, but we're not good where he wants us to be, so he always pushes us to get better. He always tells us we can compete with anybody in the country, but we've got to do it ourselves.''
Offense was a question mark heading into the season after Romero Osby, Steven Pledger and Amath M'Baye exhausted their eligibility. Despite no returning player who averaged more than 7.8 points last season, Kruger has crafted an explosive offense among the most productive in the Big 12.
Kruger's experience helps, too. After the Sooners let one slip away in a 90-83 home loss to Kansas, he didn't worry, instead showing the experience of a man who got his first college head coaching job in 1982.
''We have got to keep learning, we have to keep going, we have to keep working, keep attacking and stay aggressive,'' Kruger said. ''I know this group will do that.''
He was right. The next game, the Sooners beat then-No. 9 Iowa State 87-82. One week after that, Oklahoma won at then-No. 12 Baylor 66-64.
''He just knows it all,'' forward Cameron Clark said. ''He's been doing this for years. He's a student of the game.''
Clark, a senior forward, leads the way with 17 points per game after averaging 6.5 last year as a reserve. This season, he has scored 32 points against Michigan State, 31 against Texas Arlington and 32 against Kansas.
Hield, who averages 16.6 points per game, has bumped that up to 18.2 during conference play. Isaiah Cousins, another sophomore guard, averages 10.6 points and 4.4 rebounds. Freshman point guard Jordan Woodard averages 10.8 points and 4.5 assists.
The biggest surprise has been 6-8 sophomore forward Ryan Spangler. The Tuttle, Okla. native transferred from Gonzaga and has given the perimeter-heavy lineup the toughness it needs. He averages 11.3 points and a Big 12-high 9.8 rebounds per game. In his past four games, he's averaging 14.3 points and 13.5 rebounds while shooting 64 percent from the field.
Spangler, who wasn't highly recruited out of high school, carries a chip on his shoulder, and his energy lifts the rest of the team. He had 13 points and a career-high 16 rebounds in a win over TCU on Wednesday.
''He's been fantastic,'' Kruger said. ''Every night out, every day in practice, he brings a great work ethic, great attitude, rebounding the ball like crazy, produces some offensively, real good awareness defensively. He's been fantastic all year.''
Oklahoma's balance - having all five starters averaging double figures - makes the Sooners a tough team to handle.
''For other teams, it's harder to guard us,'' Spangler said. ''One person might go off that night, but if not, all the other five or six people can score, so I think that just opens it up for us.''
If the Sooners are in position to contend for a title at the end of the season, though, it will be because of their defensive play. After allowing 85.7 points per game in their first three conference games, they surrendered just 68.3 per contest in the next three contests.
''Making progress,'' Kruger said. ''I think the last couple weeks we've gotten better defensively. We've got to keep working at it, got to keep working on the rebounding, keep doing all the things we can as a group defensively.''
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .