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December 11, 2011

Kruger rebuilding belief in OU hoops

Oklahoma basketball finally has a pulse again. After a brief run to the Elite 8 in 2009 behind 2010 NBA Rookie of the Year Blake Griffin, Sooner fans haven't had a lot to smile about on the hardwood over the last five years.

NCAA scandals, coaching departures, player defections, and losing seasons had become the norm in Norman.

OU POSTGAME VIDEO AND HIGHLIGHTS



Jeff Capel gave fans a glimmer of hope with Blake Griffin wearing crimson and cream. But as Sooner fans were introduced to the entitlement issues of McDonald's All-Americans in Willie Warren, Tommie Mason-Griffin and Tiny Gallon, college basketball almost became a dirty word in Norman.

Then Lon Kruger arrived.

Kruger has been everything Oklahoma basketball needed coming off of the frustrations of the last five years. He didn't come into Norman flashing around McDonald's All-Americans, or boasting about anything other than getting better.

That's exactly what is happening eight games into the 2010-11 season.

All those fears about having to swim in the muck to be successful in college basketball are starting to fade. Kruger is proving he can coach up a team of inherited players, with a few of his own recruits thrown in.

On Saturday at the Lloyd Noble Center, the Sooners dismantled Arkansas 78-63 and moved to 7-1 on the young season.

Andrew Fitzgerald dominated the game early scoring 17 points in the first half. But when he was forced to the bench in the seond half, Steven Pledger took over the game finishing with 22 points on the night.

"It's really good, with Coach coming in, he gave us a lot of confidence," said Fitzgerald. "He gave our whole team confidence. He always tells us we can beat a lot of teams. All you have to do is stay focused and just believe. We still have a lot of work to be done, but I feel good about this position we're in."

The story of Kruger's rebuilding at OU isn't just told by Fitzgerald and Pledger. The real story is in the players surrounding them.

It's the story of bringing in a point guard like Sam Grooms who brings more stability to the offense than we've seen in years.

With Mike Anderson on the Arkansas sideline, Grooms was a steadying force offensively Saturday against the Razorbacks immense defensive pressure. That's something this team didn't have a year ago.

Kruger's rebuild is also about getting role players like Tyler Neal to put in 18 points after Cameron Clarke was saddled with two early fouls and finished the game with no points.

"It's huge with any team," said Kruger of Neal's night. "We're not real deep in general. Cam gets that second foul very early and Tyler goes in and it was great to see him aggressive and attacking.

"It's nice to see different guys doing it at different times."

The biggest thing for Sooner fans is seeing a coach on the bench who can actually get the most out of his players. It no longer looks like the Sooners have to sell their soul to the basketball devil in order to compete.

That's not to say this team is poised for a Final Four run, or even an NCAA appearance. This program needs much more than wins right now.

Sooner basketball needed to find its legs, its confidence and its direction again. That's happening under Kruger.

And slowly, but surely, the cloud of embarrassment felt by so many who grew to love OU basketball over the years is starting to lift.


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