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October 30, 2012

HD: Kruger has deeper, hungrier team this season

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Lon Kruger isn't used to losing. Before accepting the head coaching gig at Oklahoma, he'd led UNLV to five consecutive seasons of 21 wins or more and four NCAA tournament berths.

He reached the Elite Eight with Kansas State, his alma mater, in 1987-88 and led Florida to the Final Four in 1993-94.

Now Kruger is entering his second year of coaching Big 12 basketball after a season of being hammered in league play.

SCOOPHD: LON KRUGER, SOONERS LOOK AHEAD TO 2012-13

In 2011-12, the Sooners won just five of 18 league games. Their only Big 12 win away from the Lloyd Noble Center was a three-point victory against Kansas State.

But last year's 15-16 (5-13) record didn't seem to rattle Kruger Monday at media day. He took his seat at the Lloyd Noble Center's Kerr-McGee club in front of local media and stated his goal this season: earn a bid to the NCAA tournament.

"That'd be an indicator of success for sure," Kruger said. "No question. And that's a realistic goal and a healthy goal. We're not downplaying that. It's the goal we want our guys to have every year."

But how, coach?

"We've got a lot more quality depth," Kruger said. "Last year we were fairly shy in terms of depth. One of the strength's of this ball club is the depth."

OU will need depth if it expects to compete in the Big 12 - depth and a chippy disposition.

No. 7 Kansas was unanimously picked to win the Big 12 regular season title. No. 19 Baylor thumped Oklahoma in each of its conference games.

Oklahoma State figures to be tough with the addition of Big12 Preseason Freshman of the Year Marcus Smart and the return of Preseason All-Big 12 guard Le'Bryan Nash.

Reaching the NCAA tourney this season will be tougher with the addition of West Virginia to the league. The Moutaineers won 21 or more games in four of the last five seasons under coach Bob Huggins in the vaunted Big East and reached the NCAA tournament in each of the last five years.

OU returns last year's starting five and 88 percent of its offense.

The Sooners will also receive much needed help from Big 12 Preseason Newcomer of the Year Amath M'Baye.

"You think about a player like that, you get that many minutes that he's gonna play on the floor of that high level of competitiveness and engagement and productivity," Kruger said. "That's a big boost right off the top."

At 6-foot-9, M'Baye adds versatility at both ends of the hardwood. He's also going to allow the Sooners to stretch defenses with his range at the small and power forward position.

But what makes Kruger think this group will fare better than last year's squad? A squad that finished eighth in a 10-team conference.

"I think this year's group will compete harder, will work as hard but compete harder," Kruger said. "There's a little difference between working hard and really competing for that result, and this year's group seems to have a better grasp of understanding what that means."

OU is deeper at the guard positions. Freshmen Isaiah Cousins, Buddy Hield and Je'lon Hornbeak are expected to see significant minutes behind senior point guard Sam Grooms, senior 2-guard Steven Pledger and junior combo guard Cameron Clark.

Seniors Romero Osby and Andrew Fitzgerald will anchor the front court. The duo combined to average 25.0 points and 12.3 boards last year.

But, in Grooms' opinion, there's one reason why the Sooners should win more games this year than last year.

"More guys that can play," Grooms said. "We're a deeper team this year, more athletic, obviously. Just much deeper. There's no other way to say it. We just got more guys that can hoop."




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