Dave Sittler: Kruger, Sooners have work to do
BY DAVE SITTLER World Sports Columnist
Thursday, March 08, 2012
3/08/12 at 5:22 AM
Go to Dave Sittler's BlogOriginal Print Headline: Sooners, Kruger have work to do
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Texas A&M gave Oklahoma's basketball team a much-needed parting gift in Wednesday's opening round of the Big 12 Conference Tournament.
Call the Aggies' present a mercy killing. A&M put an end to yet another horrendous OU hoops season by hanging a 62-53 loss on the Sooners.
The only problem with that scenario is that A&M is the one departing. While the Aggies will hightail it to the SEC, OU is still searching for a way to once again become relevant in the Big 12.
Wednesday night's loss at the Sprint Center capped OU's third consecutive losing season. This one ended 15-16 overall, with a woeful 5-13 mark during the league's regular season.
OU athletic director Joe Castiglione missed his first Big Eight/Big 12 Tournament in 30 years. It probably was good that he was in Indianapolis as a new member of the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
Two years ago, a visibly angry Castiglione sat on press row in the same arena while watching Jeff Capel's coaching career spiral out of control with a season-ending 81-67 loss to Oklahoma State in the first round.
After Capel followed that 13-18 debacle with a 14-18 finish last season, Castiglione fired the coach he hand-picked five seasons earlier to replace Kelvin Sampson.
Castiglione took a different approach in his second attempt to find the right coach to rebuild OU's tradition-rich program. After the not-ready-for-prime-time Capel Experiment flamed out, Castiglione opted for 59-year-old Lon Kruger.
Kruger brought 25 years of head-coaching experience on the college and NBA levels. But after Castiglione failed to land his first choice, Marquette's Buzz Williams, he was forced to throw a whopping $2.1 million a season at Kruger to entice him to leave UNLV.
Perhaps John Wooden couldn't have coaxed more than 15 wins out of the talent-starved squad Kruger inherited from Capel. But Wooden never had an escalating contract that will pay Kruger a whopping $16 million if he hangs around for its duration.
Kruger certainly deserves a first-season honeymoon like every coach. But there is no getting past the fact this wasn't an improvement on Capel's final two seasons.
Included among the many ugly moments was the fact OU was the only Big 12 team to lose to Texas Tech, which finished a record-setting 1-17 in league play.
The latest loss to an A&M team OU had defeated last Saturday was another low point. The less-than-mediocre Aggies improved to 14-17 overall, including a 4-14 mark in regular-season Big 12 play.
Both teams seemed more intent on ending their seasons with their listless performances Wednesday night in the brutal first game of the Big 12's 16th annual tournament.
Of course, the prospect of meeting league champion and No. 3-ranked Kansas (26-5, 16-2) in Thursday's quarterfinals certainly wasn't an attractive reward for the OU-A&M winner.
Castiglione and OU's bank account must now hope Kruger lives up to his reputation of turning around downtrodden programs. He rebuilt five college teams over a career that includes Final Four appearances in the Big Dance by four of those five schools.
But some of those turnarounds took up to four years. Kruger needs to work faster than that if OU has any hope of trying to rebuild a disinterested fan base whose numbers continued to dwindle this season.
"I didn't really have any preconceived thoughts," Kruger said when asked if his first OU season turned out to be more difficult that he imagined. "It's tough in terms of not winning as many games as we wanted to.
"On the other hand, we worked hard, were pretty enthusiastic and had no trouble off the floor. But we'd like to have no trouble off the floor and win a lot of games."
Kruger certainly polished the tarnished image that had so upset Castiglione during the Capel era, which ended with NCAA sanctions.
But the ultra-competitive Big 12, which could send six teams to this NCAA Tournament, is not going to get any easier. While powerhouse Missouri is joining A&M in the SEC, newcomer West Virginia will add the Big 12's reputation of recruiting high-level players.
And at least one of the two players Kruger signed after joining OU late in last spring's recruiting period, point guard Sam Grooms, showed some spark with 13 points against the Aggies.
"I'm almost certain next year will be better than 15-16," Grooms said. "We could have easily been 25-9 if we had played better as a team.
"Our team chemistry has to get better," Grooms said. "We have to work hard in the off season to change a lot of things."
So perhaps A&M did OU a favor. Bringing a merciful end to another lost season means Kruger, Grooms and the rest of the Sooners can get an early start on making a couple million dollars worth of changes.
But it'll only be worth it if OU is one of those teams Castiglione and the rest of the NCAA Tournament selection committee picks a year from this week for the 2013 Big Dance.