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Oklahoma Sooners Basketball: Lon Kruger Loves a Challenge

Lon Kruger has a history of transforming raw guards into stars

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Media Day Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Soft-spoken, but firm. Sixty-four years old but, from time to time will be found out in his front yard mowing the lawn despite his 2.85 million dollar salary. Loves vanilla ice cream, his granddaughter Avery and the game of basketball. This Kansas native can be described in various ways, however, there is one quality that Lon Kruger possesses that stands above all of these: His determination to find the best in someone or something.

Kruger is attracted to the unknown, the counted out, the improbable. In an interview with ESPN’s Dana O'Neil, Kruger admitted to being a long-suffering Cubs fan, and that he likes an underdog. What he said next sums up not only his career, but his entire life: "And I guess I like challenges too."

Kruger's type of coaching is not the easy way, and is not the path taken by many. He is not prone to attracting the big names or the superstars, although he has picked up distinguishable athletes in the past. Kruger has a talent for seeing what others do not see. He sees potential. The Tulsa World’s Eric Bailey quotes current OU Assistant Coach Chris Crutchfield, stating "We don't recruit McDonald's All-Americans or Top-25 players. You have to find your niche. He's done it that way with positive energy, positive feedback and keeping guys confident."

Not the easy way.

It comes as no surprise that Kruger has had success rebuilding programs that have either stalled or are in bad circumstances and helped develop players throughout his career. Being the only coach that has led 5 different schools to the NCAA tournament, Kruger has had many opportunities to improve players and perfect their specific skill-sets. The most recent and radical transformations that Kruger manufactured were the two former OU players that were drafted in 2016: Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins.

The Sooners’ starting lineup last season did not have an ESPN top-100 player. Khadeem Lattin came out of high school ranked 116, Ryan Spangler was 139, Buddy Hield was ranked 154 Jordan Woodard was 172, and Isaiah Cousins 223. That's right. Buddy Hield, the two-time Big 12 Player of the Year and 2016 Wooden and Naismith National Player of the Year Award winner, was the third best recruit in the starting lineup, according to rankings coming out of high school. The success Hield and Cousins experienced in the second half of the careers have overshadowed the early career woes they faced.

Before Buddy Hield was "Buddy Buckets", he was a freshman that only posted 7.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while posting a .388 field goal percentage and suffered a late-season injury. Kruger molded Hield into an assassin who could strike from anywhere on the court in four years. As a senior, Hield put up 25 points and pulled down 5.7 rebounds while shooting a mind-boggling .501 field goal percentage. Hield had the drive of a great athlete, but he had a coach pushing him along the way into the spotlight.

Isaiah Cousins transformation is more understated. To begin his career as a Sooner, Cousins averaged 2.7 points, 2.0 rebounds and 0.7 steals, while shooting a tepid .279 field goal percentage. Kruger and his assistants would change this radically. Cousins improved in every one of these categories by his senior season. He averaged 12.6 points per game, 4.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds and knocked down 40.6 percent of his field goal attempts. This type of player development is not uncommon for Kruger.

In 1990, Kruger stepped into a position at a school that Rick Pitino was quoted for telling Billy Donovan "Absolutely do not take that job. It's a football school." Florida was also under a 2-year probation due to an investigation into potential NCAA violations. Lon, being a Kansas native, must have thought, "There's no place like home. There's no place like home." This is where he belonged. In the middle of a storm, what did he do with that? In four seasons, he led the Gators to the 1994 Final Four.

Joel Anthony was a 2-star recruit coming out of high school in 2002, according to 247 sports. He originally attended Pensacola Junior College where he played for two years before transferring to Nevada-Las Vegas to play for Lon Kruger. But, Kruger saw more than an unseasoned hoops nomad. During Anthony’s final season at UNLV, Anthony was second in the nation in blocks per 40 minutes, named the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year, led the MWC in blocked shots and blocks per game. He once posted a rare double-double from rebounds (11) and blocks (13). Since leaving UNLV, Anthony has played 10 years in the NBA and was a member of two NBA championship teams with the Miami Heat. Just one more of the countless examples of this type of story from Kruger’s coaching career.

Two years before Kruger stepped foot in Norman, the Sooners posted a 13-18 record followed by a 14-18 record. OU had also been hit with probation due to NCAA violations which resulted in OU losing recruiting time, all of their wins from 2009-2010 and one scholarship. The Sooners were on a road that was going nowhere since the program began to drop off after the departure of the number one pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, Blake Griffin. Most coaches would not only not take a job like this, but would stay far away from it and recommend others would do the same. What did Lon Kruger do? With a grin and confidence, backed up by years of experience, he took control of another program at a "football school." In just five years, the Sooners were making a trip to the Final Four for the first time since 2001-2002.

Drake may have best described Lon Kruger's life and his coaching career with these words: "Started from the bottom now we're here."

As Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins have departed from the OU basketball program, some fans are concerned with the drop-off the Sooners may experience. But Coach Kruger? This is home for him.