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Lon Kruger up to usual tournament-worthy ways at Oklahoma

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, at 5:10 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, at 7:16 a.m.

Photos

Kansas State at Oklahoma

When: 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Lloyd Noble Center, Norman, Okla.

Records: KSU 18-8, 8-5 Big 12; OU 19-7, 8-5

Radio: KQAM, 1480-AM; KWLS, 107.9-FM

TV: KSAS, Ch. 4

Kansas State at Oklahoma

PKansas StateHt.Yr. PtsReb
FThomas Gipson6-7Jr.11.86.5
FWesley Iwundu6-7Fr.6.54.1
GWill Spradling6-2Sr.8.23.3
GMarcus Foster6-2Fr.15.03.6
GNino Williams6-5Jr.6.43.2
Oklahoma
FRyan Spangler6-8So.10.59.9
GCameron Clark6-7Sr.15.45.7
GIsaiah Cousins6-4So.10.34.2
GBuddy Hield6-4So.16.74.3
GJordan Woodard6-0Fr.11.02.3

Kansas State (18-8, 8-5): The Wildcats are beginning to look like a team that can two things: Win at home and lose close on the road. K-State has won 14 straight at Bramlage Coliseum and it has lost five straight away from home. It will try and end that losing skid at Oklahoma. Doing so will require a strong defensive effort. The Sooners average 83 points. K-State beat Oklahoma last month by slowing down Cameron Clark. Shane Southwell played strong defense against him, but he may not be able to do the same this time. Though Southwell is expected to play on Saturday, he may be limited to about 20 minutes while he battles a left ankle injury.

Oklahoma (19-7, 8-5): The Sooners have struggled a bit since a 6-2 start in the Big 12, but they are still tough at home, where they have an 11-3 record. Oklahoma is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the nation. All five of its starters average double figures, with Clark and Hield leading the way as premier scorers. Lon Kruger uses a guard-oriented attack, but he has one of the conference’s best forwards down low in Spangler. The Gonzaga transfer is nearly averaging a double-double. Kruger has never defeated Weber in four tries.

RPIs as of Friday: K-State 38, OU 29.

Ryan Spangler could tell Oklahoma was headed to the NCAA Tournament the moment he stepped foot on campus.

The 6-foot-8 forward had seen what a NCAA Tournament team looked like up close as a freshman with Gonzaga. The Sooners hadn’t met that standard since 2009 when he took a recruiting visit to Norman in the spring of 2012, but he was confident that was going to change.

With Lon Kruger one year into a rebuilding project, everything about the program seemed to be on the rise.

“He’s such a good coach that you can’t help but work hard and play hard for him,” said Spangler, who has become one of the Big 12’s top forwards, averaging 10.5 points and 9.9 rebounds. “I could tell by the way he was making guys work out and the way they changed from the first game of the season to the last game that we were going to make the NCAA Tournament. I didn’t know if it would be last year or this year, but I knew we were going to get there.”

His confidence was justified. If there’s one thing Kruger has proven he can do, it’s coach teams to college basketball’s biggest stage. Kruger is the only coach who has led five teams – Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma – to the NCAA Tournament. And he has guided all of them there quickly.

It’s a trend that defines his long basketball career, which started at K-State as a player.

“To get to the NCAA Tournament you have to have good players,” Kruger said. “I think that is basically what it comes down to. We have been fortunate to be in several good situations with good players and we have enjoyed every stop and been very fortunate in that way. We love what we are doing, and we have good players to help us along the way.”

Still, this could easily be considered one of Kruger’s finest coaching efforts.

The Sooners were in turmoil before he arrived in 2011, going 27-36 after the departure of NBA dunk master Blake Griffin. They also faced three years of probation and recruiting restrictions for NCAA rules violations committed by the former coaching staff.

Oklahoma has gone 54-35 since. Kruger guided the Sooners to the NCAA Tournament in his second season. And he appears to have them headed back in his third.

Few expected much from Oklahoma this season. It lost six key contributors from the team that won 20 games and was picked to finish fifth in the Big 12’s preseason poll. But gifted scorers Buddy Hield, Cameron Clark and Spangler kept the program trending upward.

“These guys love to play,” Kruger said. “They spend as much time in the gym as any team I’ve ever had – I’m talking about in the spring, summer and fall preparing for the season. They have really invested time and progressed. Once practice started, they kept that enthusiasm and clearly wanted to keep getting better. They are easy to coach.

Added Spangler: “The thing I am most surprised by is how prepared we are. Coach Kruger is so smart and he watches so much film that he always puts us in the right spot. He has so many plays he can draw up to keep the other team guessing. He puts us in situations where we can be successful.”

So successful, that a strong finish could push the Sooners (19-7, 8-5 Big 12) into a race for second place in the league standings.

K-State (18-8, 8-5) carries similar ambitions into a 3 p.m. tip against Oklahoma on Saturday at Lloyd Noble Center, but winning won’t be easy.

Once again, Kruger has a team winning ahead of schedule.

“I didn’t put a timetable on (reaching the NCAA Tournament) when I got here,” Kruger said. “I never thought in those terms. I just tried to develop relationships with my players and make progress each week, each month, each season. We have done that. It’s exciting and it’s part of the process.”

Reach Kellis Robinett at krobinett@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @kellisrobinett.

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