Building success: OU's long, tough road back to the NCAA Tournament
BY GUERIN EMIG World Sports Writer
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
3/20/13 at 7:15 AM
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NORMAN - It was around nine o'clock last Sunday night, and the party was long gone.
Maintenance men were folding chairs and clanging away at the stage on the Lloyd Noble Center floor, scenery from Oklahoma's Selection Sunday watch party/team banquet hours earlier. Coaches had already bunkered in to scout NCAA Tournament opponent San Diego State. Fans had gone home to start filling out brackets.
Just one visible sign of basketball remained: Isaiah Cousins in the Sooners' practice gym at the other end of the arena.
The freshman guard had peeled off his OU polo shirt and jeans and put on a pair of crimson workout shorts. The only thing keeping him company was a hip hop soundtrack vibrating from the speakers. That and a ball. And a goal. He fired one 3-pointer from the corner after another.
Cousins stopped long enough to glimpse at a passer-by, then went right back to work. He didn't seem to pay anything else much mind.
There are teams who ride pure talent into the NCAA Tournament. Their lineup includes McDonald's All-Americans who overwhelm opponents by the first CBS timeout. Blake Griffin and Willie Warren could do that on OU's Elite Eight team in 2009.
The 2013 Sooners, the ones with the 10 seed in Friday's 8:20 p.m. first-round game, don't lack ability. Romero Osby, Cameron Clark and Sam Grooms were recruited by some of the game's blue bloods at one time or another.
But their journey to the program's first postseason appearance since 2009 wasn't exactly marked by rose petals. Recall the very first thing coach Lon Kruger said when addressing the media last Oct. 29:
"This group has worked hard. I couldn't be more pleased with what they've done in the spring and summer and fall. One of the motivating factors there is this senior class hasn't played in the postseason. They've bonded together and got a real purpose of wanting to play in it. These guys not only want to, but their work to this point has shown that they're very genuine about that."
The schedule says OU made its NCAA Tournament move in February, turning a month that had been poisonous to the program for three years into a four-wins-in-five-games stretch. But if you really want to know how the Sooners got off the canvas from a three-year 14-36 conference record, you'd better rewind another 10 months.
"Last spring, we sat down and talked to each other," Grooms said on behalf of fellow seniors Osby, Steven Pledger, Andrew Fitzgerald and Casey Arent. "We talked about it all summer and all fall. We needed to step up and finish the season out, leave a good taste in everybody's mouth around our university so people can remember us."
This was going to take a level of work the Sooners hadn't reached. They were better the previous season, Kruger's first at OU. They just weren't good enough.
"They're not bad kids. They're great kids. But it's understanding you've got to do more," OU assistant Lew Hill said. "There's great tradition and history here, but when you lose it for a few years, you develop your own way of thinking. They didn't understand there's a different way of working on their game and working through things. And buying in.
"And this year they just did it. This year they committed to it."
It was obvious throughout last offseason.
"People don't realize when Selection Sunday comes around, some of these guys have been in season since the first week of last April," OU strength and conditioning coach Jozsef Szendrei said. "Postseason conditioning lays the foundation for what's to come."
That message was ignored during OU's 2009 offseason, Szendrei's first on the job. Then players, and attitudes, started changing.
"From my first year to now, there has been no difference in my intensity or my work. It's them listening and buying into what I'm trying to sell," Szendrei siad. "This group understood. Their eye contact was good. Their body language was good. We had guys that wanted to be here and wanted to work."
Fitzgerald kept streamlining his body. Pledger dropped 20 pounds. Clark packed on 24 pounds of muscle. Osby and Amath M'Baye attacked the weight room.
Then the freshmen arrived.
"Guys were already gravitating toward Amath and 'Ro,'" Hill said. "Buddy (Hield), Je'lon (Hornbeak) and Isaiah got here, and they were unbelievable. Three self-motivated kids. They were always working.
"We could see it slowly turning. And then when the energy of the new guys combined with the older guys, it brought everything together. The young and the old came together and took off."
As the season arrived, it became less about sprints, squats and lifts and more about screens, stances and jumpers. The work rate, though, never changed.
It hasn't changed all the way into the middle of March.
"We have so many guys that come in and hook up the shooting machine," assistant Steve Henson said. "You hear the dribble of ballhandling drills all the time. Sunday morning, Sunday night ... You never come in here without bumping into our guys, either leaving or coming.
"Most teams have one guy like that, maybe two. We've got a whole team."
Much was made of the coach when OU received its NCAA bid last Sunday. Kruger had just become the first man to guide five programs into the tournament.
He took all of the praise and congratulations and re-directed it to his players. You don't win over 500 games in 27 years without figuring out it takes help.
And while Kruger certainly changed the vibe around his program, maybe re-drew the blueprint, it took players to follow along. Ultimately, they're the reason the Sooners are dancing again.
"This year's group will work as hard, but they'll compete harder," Kruger asserted last Oct. 29. "There's a difference between working hard and really competing for that result. This group seems to have a better grasp and understanding of what that means."
Twenty wins and an NCAA tournament berth later, there is no question.
"It speaks a lot about how genuine these guys have invested, especially our senior group," Kruger said Selection Sunday. "After last year they rallied around and said, 'Let's get to work. Let's focus.' And they haven't wavered from that. ...
"They're very deserving."
TUESDAY’S FIRST-ROUND RESULTS
(16) N.C. A&T ............ 73
(16) Liberty ............. 72
(11) St. Mary’s ................ 67
(11) Middle Tenn. ..........54
WEDNESDAY’S FIRST-ROUND GAMES (TRUTV-51)
(16) LIU-Brooklyn vs. (16) James Madison 5:40 p.m.
(13) La Salle vs. (13) Boise State, 8:10 p.m.
Original Print Headline: OU's long, tough road back to the NCAA Tournament
Guerin Emig 918-581-8355
Okahoma head coach Lon Kruger has taken five programs to the NCAA Tournament. SUE OGROCKI / AP