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Oklahoma Sooners Basketball: It’s time to appreciate Lon Kruger as a coach

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Lon Kruger has taken five schools to the NCAA Tournament and has been to a pair of Final Fours. His teams are successful for a reason.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Oklahoma Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

If there needed to be a reminder as to why Lon Kruger is one of the very best coaches in all of college basketball, Tuesday night’s game against the Kansas Jayhawks should be more than exemplary of that notion. Against a program like KU, it’s practically impossible to defeat them with sheer talent alone. Year in and year out, the Jayhawks consistently have elite talent in droves, and they’re led by a man who can coach circles around most guys in the business. Even with Trae Young on the court for the Oklahoma Sooners, it took a masterful coaching job from Kruger to seize victory over the conference’s gold standard.

In 2011, when Lon Kruger was hired as the head coach for Oklahoma, the men’s basketball program was searching for a number of specific coaching ideals. Bringing Kruger into the fold meant more than just selecting a coach with a lot of years and wins on his resume. Kruger brought an identity with him. He brought a blueprint for how to win even when there was less depth or talent on his side of the court. Today, Lon has proven that he’s the perfect coach for this program because not only is he capable of instilling decades of wisdom and experience into his players, he also isn’t too stubborn to tailor his style to his given personnel.

He’s done a fantastic with the star player himself, Trae Young. Kruger has know how special Young can truly be for quite some time. It’s precisely the reason why he has allowed Young so much freedom in the offense. But after a couple performances trending in the wrong direction, he didn’t take long to address the issues with how opponents were finding success against Young. With a slight adjustment to Young’s approach to the game, Oklahoma was able to get the offense back on track.

All of this carried over to the end of the game, when the offensive efficiency and unselfish play counted most. With Oklahoma trailing 80-79 with under two minutes remaining, Young did not come out trying to be the hero. Well, he actually was the hero, but not the kind of hero that many were expecting. Young used his reputation to his advantage by drawing in defenders and finding his wide open teammates. The freshman drove down the baseline and found Christian James in the opposite corner for a wide open, go-ahead three ball. After a stop, Young again found a teammate — this time fellow freshman Brady Manek.

Lon Kruger’s ability as a coach goes beyond simply asking for Young to call his own shot a bit less often and seek to involve his teammates more frequently. Perhaps his most brilliant coaching of the night came late in the second half when Oklahoma was trailing the Kansas and needed a better way to come up with defensive stops. That’s when Coach Kruger went with this:

That designated player was Matt Freeman, and it worked like a charm. Udoka Azubuike went 1-8 from the free throw line (including 0-6 once the hacking began), and Oklahoma chipped away bit by bit until the game flipped completely around. When the Sooners took the 82-80 lead, there was no looking back. It’s never the way most envisioned that game playing out, but Lon Kruger saw the opportunity and capitalized on it.

KU head coach Bill Self, on the other hand, made the questionable decision to leave Azubuike in the game, even after it was apparent what Lon Kruger’s plan of action was, and how abysmal his star center’s shot was looking. Self provided an explanation after the game. His rationale is certainly understandable, but it was still a costly decision.

At the end of the day, Kruger is widely regarded as one of the all-time class acts in college basketball. Even after the game, Kruger handled the situation masterfully and unselfishly.

So while he may not get as much attention as a Bill Self or a Coach K, there’s no denying that Lon Kruger is one of the best coaches at this level of backetball. He has tons of experience, high in-game coaching ability, and a resonance with the young men he teaches and influences every day. The proof has always been there.

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