Lon Kruger had plenty to be proud of at the conclusion of his third season last spring at Oklahoma. After guiding the Sooners to 23 victories, a second-place finish in the Big 12 and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the future appeared bright for a potent scoring team that returned much of its firepower.
As expected, Oklahoma is even better in Kruger’s fourth year. Just not for the reason you might have expected.
The driving force behind the No. 16 Sooners’ 11-3 start, which includes double-digit victories over Baylor and Texas: defense.
“That was a big priority this year,” said Kruger, a former K-State player and coach. “We didn’t feel like we guarded people nearly well enough, and that hurt us in terms of having control of games. It was a major priority. We had to make big strides in that area. This group has.”
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A year after ranking seventh nationally on offense with an average of 81.9 points per game, Oklahoma now prides itself on balance.
The Sooners are ranked 33rd nationally in defense (points allowed) so far this season, allowing 58.9 points per game. They are making it hard for opponents to make shots (35.6 percent), they are making it hard for opponents to make threes (28 percent) and they rarely allow offensive rebounds. Behind an all-hands-on-deck approach around the glass, Oklahoma leads the nation with 29.9 defensive rebounds per game.
“That is our goal defensively, to limit teams to one contested shot on every possession,” Kruger said. “Our big guys do a good job, but our guards rebound well, too. We probably have the best wing rebounders in the conference and the best point-guard rebounder in the conference. We try to make it a point to get five defenders in the paint as much as possible.”
That approach has led to an offensive dip, as Oklahoma’s scoring has dropped to 73.6 points per game. But few seem to mind, because Oklahoma’s scoring margin has increased to nearly 15 points per game (up from 5.9 last season).
The Sooners flexed their defensive muscle, and showed off their overall improvement, in their last game, beating No. 10 Texas 70-49 in Austin. They held an opponent to less than 30-percent shooting for the fourth time.
K-State knows a game at Oklahoma on Saturday will likely go down as one of its most difficult contests.
“They might be the best team in the league,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “We will see as it goes. Obviously, to do what they did to Texas in Austin … That’s impressive. … The most impressive thing was their defense.
“They seemed to be everywhere and just took Texas out of the game. We did that last year to Texas, but it was at our place. For them to go down there and do that was very impressive.”
It would not have happened if not for Kruger’s shift in emphasis this season on defense.
He decided during the 2014 postseason that something had to change. After scoring enough to go 12-6 in Big 12 play, a pair of off shooting nights sent the Sooners home without a victory in the Big 12 Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament.
Kruger has always been an excellent offensive coach, but something had to change to approach a higher level.
“Sometimes, when you score points you kind of think you can outscore people,” Kruger said. “That is a mistake. It’s not that you think that way, but subconsciously you have that belief that we can go score whenever we have to and defense isn’t important. The sincerity with which we approached defense had to change.”
Now that Oklahoma approaches it the same as offense, Kruger thinks this is his best team in Norman.
“Each year has gotten better,” Kruger said. “Last year’s group was better than the first two. Now we have most of those guys back, and they are pushing to get better in every practice and every game.”