Kruger taking OU hoops back to top

Final Point

By Kyle Salomon

When the University of Oklahoma hired Lon Kruger to be its new head basketball coach in the spring of 2011, many people questioned the hire.

column shots.qxdThey weren’t questioning Kruger as a coach. They were questioning just what direction the OU administrators saw for Oklahoma basketball.

Kruger is now in his third season as the head coach of the Sooner program and the result so far is pretty simple – OU men’s basketball is in good hands with Kruger at the helm.

Oklahoma currently sits at 18-7 overall this season with a mark of 7-4 in Big 12 Conference play, which is incredibly impressive considering the Big 12 is by far the best basketball league in the nation this year with teams like Kansas, Texas, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Baylor.

The Sooners are also ranked in the top 25, and look to be building toward a high seed in the NCAA Tournament, which begins in a little more than a month.

Going into the season, there wasn’t much hype surrounding this team Kruger is putting on the hardwood for the Sooner faithful to watch. OU lost its three top scorers from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad, which was beaten in the first round by San Diego State.

Forwards Romero Osby and Amath MBaye and guard Steven Pledger moved on from the Sooner program.

This year was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Kruger’s crew as youth and inexperience headlined the OU preseason.

Kruger signed two junior college big men late in the summer to try and help with the departures of Osby and MBaye, but both players left campus early in the fall for unknown reasons, leaving Gonzaga transfer and Tuttle native sophomore forward Ryan Spangler as the main horse inside.

Spangler has been OU’s biggest surprise this year. His ability to play inside against not just one but two opposing post players has been nothing short of spectacular. He doesn’t light up the scoreboard with points, but his rebounding, defense and overall physical toughness make Oklahoma not just adequate in the paint, but feared.

Spangler does have help down low with senior forward Cameron Clark. Clark is an undersized post player with freakish athleticism that some NBA players would love to have in their arsenal. Clark has improved his outside shooting and his quickness and leaping ability provide mismatches for opposing front lines.

Senior forward and Putnam City West native Tyler Neal has blossomed into a fine player in his final season with the Sooners  Neal has the ability to stretch the defense from the four-position with his on-target 3-point shooting. Neal also has shown tremendous toughness going down low and banging with the big bodies in the paint for rebounds.

The other front-court player for the Sooners is junior forward D.J. Bennett. Bennett is a junior college transfer who red-shirted a year ago to put on weight and so he wouldn’t waste a year playing behind Osby and MBaye.

Bennett is still a slender player, but he is long and athletic, which allows him to play solid defense and be an effective rebounder for the Sooners. He is limited on the offensive end of the floor, but has the ability to “wow” fans with his big dunk potential.

Now we move to the backcourt. Oklahoma’s guards are a big reason to be excited about OU basketball, both now and in the future.

Oklahoma rotates five guards in three positions this season. Kruger likes to play three guards in the lineup at all times because of his style of play, which is run-and-gun up-tempo.

No position is more important in college basketball than point guard, and OU has a good one. True freshman Jordan Woodard is an Edmond Memorial graduate who knows how to win basketball games.

He only stands 6 feet tall, but his ability to get to the rim, penetrate defenses and deliver on-point passes are a big reason Oklahoma is where they are today.

Sophomore guard Buddy Hield is probably the most talented scorer on OU’s roster. He has the quickness to get around defenders and the physicality to go through them when needed. He can light it up from beyond the arc and take it to the rim just as well.

Sophomore guard Isaiah Cousins has improved drastically on the offensive end of the floor for the Sooners in the past year. Last season, Cousins was merely an athletic defender who would have had trouble hitting the ocean from a steam liner with his jump shot. This year, he is an offensive threat and his defensive skills have improved as well.

Sophomore guard JeLon Hornbeak has had problems with his foot ever since he has been in the Sooners program. However, when he has been healthy, Hornbeak has shown the ability to score from every spot on the floor as well as defend with tenacity on the perimeter.

Last but not least is true freshman guard Frank Booker. Booker was brought in as a 3-point specialist, but with Kruger’s coaching, he has become an outstanding overall player. Booker can still light it up from 3-point range, but he has developed a solid mid-range game and has improved on the defensive end of the court in a big way.

There is no telling how far this Oklahoma team can actually go once they get to the NCAA Tournament in March, but one thing is certain, with Kruger coaching them, they are not going to beat themselves.

It’s time for people to start getting to know this team as they make their run down the stretch of the season.

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