On Saturday, Oklahoma shook up the Big 12 race with an 87-82 victory over a previously undefeated top-10 Iowa State squad in Norman.
The Sooners lost more than 40.0 PPG of offense from last year’s NCAA tourney squad. Former stars Steven Pledger and Romero Osby are gone.
But Lon Kruger has kept this year’s young team (10 underclassmen on the roster) in the NCAA tourney conversation. And Saturday’s win certainly helped its cause. For Kruger, however, the success is nothing new. He spoke with ESPN.com about the win over the Cyclones and the prospects for the program. (He also discussed the time an NFL franchise offered him a chance to try out.)
ESPN.com: How gratifying was Saturday’s win over Iowa State?
Kruger: Anytime you can get a win over a top-ranked team and a very good team, you feel very good for the guys and the progress they’ve made and the progress they’re making. It felt good. Those are hard to come by. Probably the biggest [factor] was Ryan Spangler (15 rebounds) rebounding the ball like he did in the second half and giving us extra possessions.
ESPN: How has this program blossomed, despite losing Osby and Pledger?
Kruger: We’ve got good young players. We’re young, we’re very young, but they love to play, they love to work. They’re very close. That’s a big key. They’ve taken some good steps. I really believe they genuinely know we have a long way to go. And that’s necessary for us to compete in the league.
ESPN: What does Oklahoma have to do to be a serious contender for the Big 12 title?
Kruger: Exactly what we just talked about. Just make progress every day. Continued progress.
ESPN: In 1974, the Dallas Cowboys invited you to a rookie camp to see if you might be able to play quarterback. Did you take them up on their offer?
Kruger: I didn’t do it. They were doing that with a lot of athletes that weren’t necessarily football players in college. I certainly wasn’t able to do that. I loved it. I played football in high school. I realized I wasn’t fast enough or big enough to do that at that level.
ESPN: You’ve devoted a lot of energy to charity. Why has that been so important to you throughout your career?
Kruger: It’s very important. I think any time you’re part of an athletic program, college town, it really becomes a partnership. We want our players to understand the value of giving back and being in the community. That becomes a lesson to them to help others that might be in a little bit of a need.
ESPN: What has been the main ingredient to your success, as the only coach who has led five different teams to the NCAA tournament?
Kruger: We’ve gone to the tournament with good players. We’ve gotten good players consistently. They’ve played well together as a team. We’ve been very fortunate.
ESPN: What did you learn about your team during that win over Iowa State on Saturday?
Kruger: Every time you can do that late in the game is great from an experience standpoint. It was a really good finish. We did that a little bit in Austin (against Texas). We didn’t quite get it done against Kansas. Their size really bothered us. Any time you can do that, you gain valuable insight.