New Look Oklahoma Sooners Thriving Under Lon KrugerPosted by dnspewak on December 15th, 2011
Nobody’s going to hang a banner at the Lloyd Noble Center for Oklahoma‘s modest 7-1 start, especially considering the Sooners’ non-conference strength of schedule ranks 100th in the nation. Keep in mind that OU has not yet played a true road game. It lost to the best team on its schedule (Saint Louis) by 20 points. It arguably has not faced an NCAA Tournament team yet and its second-leading scorer transferred earlier this month.
But so what? Compared to last season’s 14-18 campaign, these Sooners are playing with an entirely different attitude on both ends of the floor under first-year head coach Lon Kruger. Despite the slip-up against SLU in the 76 Classic finals, Oklahoma appears to have improved in almost every facet of basketball, thanks in part to a higher overall level of maturity and the addition of two impact transfers. Kruger’s team manhandled Arkansas and Washington State, and it overpowered a good Santa Clara team by dominating the rebounding margin.
From both a basketball and statistical standpoint, Oklahoma is a new team with point guard Sam Grooms (junior college) and forward Romero Osby (Mississippi State). It’s not hyperbole to suggest they are both lifesavers at their respective positions, and they’ve filled missing links by contributing in other areas besides scoring. Grooms, for example, doesn’t look to score much, but that’s not his role on this team after unseating Carl Blair as the starting point guard. Instead, he’s found his groove as the lead guard by deferring to Steven Pledger, who is enjoying a breakout junior season. Pledger has averaged nearly 18 points per game without forcing anything, and a lot of that has to do with Grooms’ efficiency at the point guard spot. Pledger also has less pressure thanks to the productivity of a several other scorers like Osby, Andrew Fitzgerald, Cameron Clark and, most recently, Tyler Neal, whose minutes have skyrocketed after Calvin Newell‘s transfer. The individual scoring totals for these players don’t matter much, though. Most importantly, with Grooms leading the way, Kruger’s team shares the ball, takes good shots, and has limited its turnovers. That’s a complete turnaround from the 2010-11 season, when the Sooners ranked dead last in the Big 12 in several offensive categories.
This is also a tougher team than a year ago in more ways than one. Osby’s a key example of this, as he’s played like an animal on the boards. Last season, Oklahoma’s lack of size and depth in the frontcourt contributed to poor rebounding efforts on a nightly basis. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the Sooners were one of the nation’s worst rebounding teams, both on the offensive and defensive end. With Osby, that mindset has changed. He brings a swagger to this team, and it has even rubbed off on Fitzgerald.
Kruger still has a lot of work to do. He doesn’t have a lot of depth up front, and Clark hasn’t quite come around after a stellar freshman season. Plus, eight games isn’t enough to complete a rebuilding project. This program may have reached the Elite Eight in 2008-09 with Blake Griffin, but the end of Jeff Capel’s tenure was horrific enough to wipe away most of those memories. Oklahoma will need to prove it is a different team when Big 12 play begins, and it will have that opportunity right away– OU travels to Missouri and hosts Kansas in its first two conference games.
There’s no reason Kruger can’t overachieve with this roster, though, especially if Grooms and Pledger keep this up. And if Clark ever comes around — remember, he looked like a classic sophomore breakout candidate heading into the season — Kruger will have yet another offensive option to lean on. Forget the thin frontcourt and a recent “culture of losing.” Kruger rarely fails as a head coach, and an NCAA Tournament berth in his first season in Norman isn’t far-fetched at all. Not with his track record.