I tried to write an unbiased article about the Sooners making the big dance and what it means, but I was just so giddy about it that it was a near impossible task. Besides, here at isportsweb, we’re all about things from the fan’s point of view. So here’s what it means to me, a Sooner hoops fan since ’02, to make the NCAA tournament.
I have grown up idolizing Sooner basketball. I remember going to my first few games with my dad starting in 2002 and how Hollis Price had the uncanny ability to take over games by scoring in bunches. There was nothing like it, the way the 6-foot-1 guard would take the ball to the hoop, undeterred by the opposing defense, for a tough layup in traffic, or the way he would rise up for a three and swish it through the net effortlessly, or even a steal and fast break score, demonstrating both his defense prowess and quickness. It was mesmerizing. Perhaps what should be most appreciated though was his toughness—he was the heart and soul of Sooner basketball at the time. He played with a passion unrivaled by anyone, even his teammates, and he had a mean game face. Price even played through injuries for his team and was still productive, even at age seven, I found that admirable.
So, after witnessing Price & co. plow their way to the Final Four that same season, I was hooked. My perpetual infatuation with Sooner hoops had manifested itself. I began to follow the team religiously, staying up past my bed time to catch the end of important games. The next season, Oklahoma finished with a 27-7 record and won the Big 12 Tournament Championship, a resume that was good enough for a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. The Sooners made it all the way back to the Elite Eight before falling to Carmelo Anthony and eventual champion Syracuse.
Then, the program regressed a little, the first of many bumps in the road for this young fan.
I continued to follow the team, but none of the ensuing seasons matched the magic that the first two had provided me. Without Price, the Sooners failed the make the tournament the following season, and their next two appearances were sullied by early exits. Then, Kelvin Sampson left to coach Indiana, causing Damion James and Scottie Reynolds to rescind their commitments, sending the future of the program in limbo. Oklahoma hired Jeff Capel, a coach at VCU who had led the Rams to a tournament upset of Duke, to replace Sampson. The first season was a disaster. The Sooners barely finished with a winning record of 16-15, and missed the postseason entirely. They didn’t even sniff the NIT. The second season however, was a complete turnaround, which can be credited to one guy: Blake Griffin.
You’ve probably heard of Griffin, and if not, crawl out of that hole you’ve been living in and search him on Youtube to see how special of a specimen he is. With unnatural leaping abilities, Griffin soared for monster dunks, taking the Sooners with him to new heights. He led the Sooners to a 23-12 record and got them back into the tournament, but they lost in the second round to Louisville. Griffin, a projected lottery pick, opted to stay in school one more year, and worked tirelessly that offseason to hone his skillset.
It couldn’t have worked better for either party. The Sooners, with a new and improved Griffin finished 30-6 on the season and earned a number two seed in the tournament. They breezed through their first three games, before running into juggernaut and eventual champion North Carolina in the Elite Eight. Griffin, on the other hand, became the most dominant Sooner I have ever watched, averaging 22.7 points and 14.4 rebounds in his second year, won various player of the year honors and wisely left the Sooners after that sophomore campaign, becoming the number one overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft. Most importantly though, that Griffin recaptured the magic that made Sooner basketball special to me.
Even with the departure of Griffin, the Sooners were expected to be a top 25 team the next season. With Willie Warren and Tony Crocker returning, and the additions of top recruits Keith “Tiny” Gallon and Tommy Mason-Griffin, nobody expected them to miss a beat. Unfortunately, the team drastically underperformed, tantalizing fans with their talent and potential. They plummeted to a 13-18 record on the season—the program’s worst record in 30 years. This started a dismal three-year stretch in which the Sooners would be hit with a prolonged NCAA investigation (eventually resulted in loss of scholarship), Capel would be fired, and the Sooners would hire program re-builder Lon Kruger. Many wondered how long it would take Kruger to fix the mess that he was left with. It was arguably his toughest rebuild yet. Three years? Four maybe? Actually, just two.
In just his second season at the helm, Kruger has guided the Sooners to a 20-11 record and earlier Sunday, more good news came. As expected, the Sooners made the NCAA tournament field after a three year postseason drought. In my eyes, Kruger is a miracle worker. I was always cautiously optimistic this would be the year that the Sooners would break out of their slump, but to see it come to fruition is almost surreal.
Oklahoma will dust off its dancing shoes to take on San Diego State Friday in a 2nd round matchup. Kruger has met the Aztecs several times as a member of the Mountain West Conference during his tenure at UNLV. He is 6-14 all-time against Fisher’s teams, planting a seed of doubt as to whether or not the Sooners will advance past the round of 64.
Still, it’s a blessing to simply be in the dance. The rate at which Kruger has turned this program around is astounding, but nothing new. After taking over at Kansas State and Illinois, Kruger’s teams saw immediate success, making the tournament in his first season, after missing the previous year. Sunday, he reached a new milestone: become the only coach in NCAA history to take five different schools to the NCAA Tournament. It was one of a plethora for his career and of two this season, where he also reached 500 career wins.
That’s an inordinate amount of achievement for a guy like Kruger, who really doesn’t receive as much publicity as is deserved. After leading a squad that hadn’t had a winning season in three years to a 20-win season, a tournament berth, and entering solitary ground as the only coach to lead five schools to the promised land, Kruger didn’t even win coach of the year in his own conference. Bruce Weber of Kansas State did. Granted, this was decided before the tournament field was announced, but Oklahoma was pretty much solidified a spot with its resume. Is it that difficult to see how much of a travesty this is? Don’t get me wrong; Weber and the Wildcats had an amazing season. His team finished 27-7, which is very impressive. However, he did all of this after inheriting the players of Frank Martin, including one of the best players in the conference Rodney McGruder. Do you not think Lon Kruger could have gone 27-7 with that roster? Of Oklahoma’s five starters, three of them are quote-unquote Kruger guys. For the most part, Kruger built this team. He is the Big 12 coach of the year from where I stand.
Point is, Kruger is good, and the Sooners are lucky to have him. This season especially, the Sooners overachieved. No one thought they would be this good. They were picked to finish 8th in the conference, but finished twice as high, in 4th place. Kruger made them a tournament team, and as a result enthralled the audience once again. People other than the diehards like me began to care about Sooner basketball again. With every win and every loss a multitude of fans would tweet about the game. After a marquee win against Kansas on their home floor, Sooner fans rushed the court. That’s how you knew this was a special season. People actually cared again.
I have to say, this season ranks amongst those of the Griffin and Price eras. Not from a success standpoint obviously, but from an “this season is really special to me” standpoint. It’s special because the Sooners have been devoid of this type of season for so long. It’s special because they are finally back where they belong. Lon Kruger is a rebuilding wizard, and like every good wizard, he knows how to make things magical.
Want more Sooner hoops? Follow me on Twitter @ChandlerVessels