PLANO, Texas -- Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger's 2013-14 squad finished second in the Big 12 for the first time in his tenure during a period when many believed the Big 12 was the most competitive league in the country.
The Big 12 finished ranked No. 1 in the Rating Percentage Index (RPI). It counted seven teams that were ranked in the Associated Press top 25 at some point through out the season and led all conferences with seven teams selected to participate in the 2014 NCAA tournament two months ago.
Within that group, Kruger and his staff created a team that won 23 games with just three scholarship upperclassmen on the roster. But that team wasn't good enough to knock perennial league power Kansas from its perch atop the Big 12, and Kruger was the first one to say so.
"Kansas … they've actually won every conference title since 2005. So it's kind of tough to unseat them, but someone's gotta do that," he said. "I know our guys are looking forward to that challenge as are the other teams in the Big 12."
It's with that challenge in mind that Kruger spoke proudly of the players he has returning and the players who he has joining the program this summer. Oklahoma returns leading scorer Buddy Hield and leading rebounder Ryan Spangler as well as its only true point guard in Jordan Woodard and, perhaps, its most versatile guard in Isaiah Cousins.
Hield, Spangler and Cousins will all be juniors by fall, and each will likely play a mighty role in how good or bad the Sooners are when the new season comes around. Kruger, though, is encouraged by their maturation as ball players and leaders.
"We're limited in the number of hours we can be with them on the court with a ball, but they can be in there countless number of hours by themselves," Kruger said. "With those three guys leading the way, I know they'll make a ton of progress through the summer, through the fall in preparation for the season in November."
They'll get reinforcements from as far south as Florida and as far north as Ontario, Canada, in June. Kruger signed three high school seniors to letters of intent last fall, and OU recently added a junior college combo guard in Dinjily Walker. Walker was brought in to replace the departed Je'lon Hornbeak and provide the Sooners with another capable ball handler.
Signees Jamuni McNeace and Khadeem Lattin both figure to bolster the Sooners' inside presence -- an area where the Sooners were severely lacking last season -- and Dante Buford could replace Clark as that all-around small forward the Sooners enjoyed playing around when name brand teams like KU and Michigan State toed the hardwood with them.
But it was in Spokane, Wash., where the Sooners met their end against a virtually unknown North Dakota State squad that paid no mind to the letters on their jersey and paid no respect to those across the Sooners'.
"Anytime the year ends, it's very disappointing, and it ends that way for all but one," Kruger said. "I think (Connecticut) this year won the national championship, but every one else leaves that last ballgame really, really disappointed. And yet our guys will learn a lot from that."
Once the Bison dispatched OU in the second round of tournament, the reality slowly began to sink in that, in the postseason, this 20-win team was no better than the 15-16 team Kruger coached in his first year in Norman.
Neither team won a game after the regular season ended, and Kruger, the only man to take five different programs to the tournament, is winless in the postseason at OU. Something's got to give, and Sooner fans will hope Year 4 is when it does.