Lon Kruger Listened to Us, and Sam Grooms Helped OU WinPosted by dnspewak on January 13th, 2013
Lon Kruger doesn’t need our basketball advice. The man was a two-time Big Eight Player of the Year at Kansas State in the early ’70s, and as a head coach, he’s won more than 500 games and reached a Final Four in 1994 with Florida. Oh, the dude coached the Atlanta Hawks once, too. Point is, Kruger knows what the heck he’s doing, and we’re guessing he doesn’t develop his scouting reports and pre-game preparations based on advice from idiots like myself.
So no, I don’t think he read my article published this Monday, in which I pleaded with the Oklahoma head coach to give senior point guard Sam Grooms more minutes. I wrote that article earlier this week because I could not offer any plausible reason for why Kruger had played Buddy Hield, Je’lon Hornbeak and Isaiah Cousins — three freshmen guards — ahead of the Big 12′s leading returning assists man. Here’s a guy with an absurd assist-to-turnover ratio, no defensive liabilities and no reason to be in the doghouse, and yet Kruger opted to cut Grooms’ minutes in half from a year ago and replace him in the starting lineup through the first 13 games of the season. The Sooners weren’t playing poorly, but I didn’t see any significant improvement overall from a year ago. Scratch head and repeat. What in the world was Sam Grooms doing on the bench?
For the 14th time this season, Grooms sat on the bench to start the game Saturday in another edition of the Bedlam series. Oklahoma threw the first punch against rival Oklahoma State at home by knocking down perimeter jumpers and keeping the Cowboys’ high-flying wings out of the paint. With Grooms playing reserve duty, the Sooners opened up a 32-18 lead. Who needs Grooms now? Hield was playing terrific basketball in his first Bedlam game, and OU’s offense seemed to be clicking even without Grooms. Suddenly, though, the shots weren’t falling anymore. The Cowboys began to attack the rim and get to the free throw line, and that 14-point lead had turned into a 50-45 lead with 11:50 remaining in regulation.
Four minutes earlier, Kruger had subbed in Grooms for Hornbeak after the freshman committed a turnover. Hield wasn’t going to leave the game, but it was time for Kruger to decide whether to use his senior point guard or instead throw Hornbeak (or Cousins) back into the game. It was now or never. His team was in danger of blowing a double-digit lead in a game it desperately needed to win to prove to the world it may not be such a slouch in the Big 12 after all.
Maybe Kruger pulled out his smart phone during the media timeout and read my article. Maybe not. I’m not offended if he didn’t. No matter how he reached the conclusion, though, Kruger decided to stick with our man Sam Grooms. He rewarded them. Big time. He played the rest of the second half and dished out three assists in the final eight minutes, including two that led to impressive alley-oops. Even on television, you could watch his mannerisms and feel his veteran presence. He was always directing traffic, always in his teammates’ ears.
Grooms wound up playing a season-high 27 minutes. His final line: 4-4 from the free throw line, three assists, one turnover and even three rebounds. He made only one of five shots from the floor, but that’s not his role on this team. Color commentator Fran Fraschilla noted repeatedly that Grooms was playing with two injured ankles, but that hardly seemed to matter on Saturday. By the time Kruger replaced Grooms with less than a minute to play, Oklahoma was putting the finishing touches on a 77-68 victory.
The Sooners won for a lot of reasons. They built a lead early by playing well on the defensive end, and they kept Oklahoma State at arms-length by knocking down threes and taking care of the basketball. They controlled tempo and got a lot out of forwards Romero Osby and Amath M’Baye. Hield was huge, too, finishing with 15 points and five assists. But you want your point guard to lead you to victory when adversity hits. Grooms had the ball in his hands in the final 10 minutes of the game, and that’s what allowed Oklahoma to shrug off a surging Oklahoma State team.
Grooms and the freshmen can co-exist. There’s nothing wrong with Kruger using his depth to his advantage. It’s just that Grooms has to be a part of that depth, and playing him 17 minutes a game is unacceptable. Our guess is Grooms probably won’t play 17 minutes a game anymore after Saturday. And that’s not because Lon Kruger read that article. It’s because after seeing Grooms’ steady demeanor and impact in the final minutes of a victory, it’d be impossible not to play him more.