Ryan Spangler could tell Oklahoma was headed to the NCAA Tournament the moment he set foot on campus.
Spangler, a 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, but when he took a recruiting visit to Norman in the spring of 2012, 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 proved 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 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.”
Still, this might easily be 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 dunkmeister Blake Griffin. They also faced three years of probation and recruiting restrictions for NCAA rules violations committed by the previous 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 had 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 overall and 8-5 in the Big 12, into a race for second place in the league standings.
K-State, 18-8 and 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.”