Kruger takes his fifth team to NCAA
Even before the NCAA Tournament began, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger made history.
Kruger became the first head coach in Division I history to coach different five programs to the NCAA Tournament when Oklahoma (20-11) was named the No. 10 seed in the event’s South Regional.
OU will take on No. 7 seed San Diego State (22-10) on Friday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at 8:20 p.m.
If OU wins its tournament opener, it will play Sunday against the winner of Friday’s contest between No. 2 seed Georgetown (25-6) and No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast (24-10). Games will be played at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Sooners, who finished tied for fourth place in the Big 12 Conference with an 11-7 mark, are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance in four years and 27th overall. Their 23 NCAA Tournament appearances since 1983 are the second most in the Big 12 during the span behind Kansas’ 29.
“(It’s an) exciting day,” said Kruger, who is making his 14th NCAA Tournament appearance as a head coach and owns a 14-13 record in the event. “Any time you can be a part of Selection Sunday, you feel great about that. It’s hard to get in the field; there are a lot of great teams out there. Most of the (players) calling right after the announcement to family and friends, we haven’t had the opportunity to do that before. Especially the seniors; I’m really happy for them. Happy for everyone.”
Kruger, who has led Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV all to at least one NCAA Tournament win, guided K-State to the 1988 Elite Eight, Florida to the 1994 Final Four and UNLV to the 2007 Sweet 16.
“I don’t think too much about it,” Kruger said of leading his fifth school to the NCAA Tournament. “Obviously, it means we’ve had a lot of good stops; we’ve been very fortunate. Barb and I have met a lot of people along the way and changing wasn’t a plan going in, but it’s worked very well and we’ve got good friendships around the country and have had really good players everywhere.”
Leading the Sooners into Friday’s game will be senior forward Romero Osby. The first-team All-Big 12 selection (OU’s first since Blake Griffin in 2009) is averaging 15.8 points and 7.0 rebounds a game while shooting .522 from the field, all team highs. He has scored at least 17 points in each of the last eight games and is averaging 21.5 points during the stretch.
“It means so much to us, and we’re so happy to be able to have this opportunity, and it means a lot, especially to the guys that have been here for the longest and suffered through some of the hard seasons,” Osby said of the selection. “We’re blessed and grateful.”
Oklahoma is 3-0 all-time against San Diego State. The Aztecs, who finished 9-7 in the Mountain West Conference, are coached by Steve Fisher.
“San Diego State’s a talented team, and Steve Fisher’s done a great job,” Kruger said. “Of course we battled him for a lot of years (when we were) at UNLV. He does a great job. He’s got a talented, athletic basketball team and we’ll have to keep getting better.”
“This is the time of year that you jump and shout for joy that you made it this far,” Fisher said. “It doesn’t matter who you play, where you play or what seed you have, but to be in the field of 64/68 is a tremendous privilege. If we are not excited and feel like this is something special then something is wrong. Like our kids, I am very, very excited that one, we are in, two that we have a seven seed. Everyone was telling me that we would probably be a nine seed, maybe an eight.
“So I think the respect of the league is there and our job now is to find out as much as we can about a friend of mine, Lon Kruger, and his Oklahoma Sooners. We will be ready to play, it’s a Friday game which gives us a little extra time to prepare. We are extremely excited that we are in the tournament for the fourth year in a row and I believe that is third-highest seed we have had. We are anxious to see if we can find a way to get a win.”
OU owns a 36-26 all-time record in the NCAA Tournament and has made four Final Four appearances (1939, 1947, 1988 and 2002), three Elite Eight showings and four Sweet 16 appearances. It reached the national championship game in 1947 and 1988.
“I am just really excited to be playing,” said SDSU’s Xavier Thames. “We (will face) coach Lon Kruger, who recruited me when I was in high school, so it will be a nice chance to see him. I am just really excited. He recruited me when he was at UNLV so it is going to be really exciting to see him since I haven’t seen him in a long time. It is going to be a good game.”
SDSU (22-10; 9-7 Mountain West) will make its school-record fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance against a Sooner team that posted an 11-7 mark in the Big 12.
San Diego State will be making its ninth Division I NCAA tournament appearance and sixth under Fisher. This year’s invitation also marks the eighth straight postseason berth for the Aztecs and the 10th under Fisher. The Scarlet and Black are one of 17 squads to advance to the NCAA tournament four consecutive years.
SDSU will see a familiar face on the Oklahoma sideline as it is led by Kruger. Prior to his arrival in Norman, Kruger was at the helm of the UNLV program for seven seasons. During Kruger’s time in Las Vegas, Fisher and the Aztecs were 13-5 against him and won five straight before Kruger relocated to OU. “We have players that experienced the `one and done’ last year and also experienced playing in the Sweet 16 two years ago,” said SDSU’s Chase Tapley. ” We just all know what it takes so we just have to pull together and get wins.”
Last year’s quick exit provides motivation for a better start this year.
“Yes, it does motivate us,” said Tapley. “We don’t want to go all the way out there and just play in one game and come home. We want to do everything (we can) to go the full length of the two-game tournament then go onto the next city.”