Lon Kruger took over an Oklahoma Sooners men’s basketball program in 2011 that was staring into the abyss. Attendance was dwindling. The squad had just completed its second straight losing season. The program had run afoul of the NCAA under the last two head coaches, Jeff Capel and Kelvin Sampson.
Kruger brought a low-key and congenial personality to the job, and his teams at OU lived up to his track record of consistency. He was the right coach for the times.
Thanks in large measure to Kruger’s leadership, the next head coach at OU will take over a far more appealing situation. Athletic director Joe Castiglione doesn’t need to woo a seasoned veteran with decades of experience as a head coach to put out any fires. With that in mind, here’s a short rundown of three intriguing – and, importantly, realistic – candidates for the job who are currently head coaches elsewhere.
Grant McCasland, North Texas
The rumor mill has focused almost exclusively on the 44-year-old McCasland since word of Kruger’s imminent retirement started to spread. It’s easy to see why. McCasland garnered national notoriety this year when the Mean Green upset Purdue in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, but he has assembled a strong resume in five seasons as a D-I head coach at UNT and Arkansas State. That includes an overall record of 98-63 to go along with an Conference USA Tournament win this season and a finish in first place in the league last year.
McCasland has nearly 20 years combined of coaching experience in the state of Texas, so he knows the recruiting terrain well. Really, if there is any hesitation here, it might be purely aesthetic: His teams at North Texas have played a grinding, methodical style. Purists might celebrate the precision, but it’s not necessarily going to be a thrill ride.
Nevertheless, Castiglione would deserve high marks if McCasland is indeed the pick.
Niko Medved, Colorado State
Medved, 47, had stops at Furman and Drake before arriving at Colorado State, where he has coached for the last three years. After a rocky 12-20 start in 2019, his teams at CSU have won at least 20 games the last two seasons.
The biggest selling point for Medved would be his track record of improvement at Furman and Drake. In his four years at Furman, the Paladins teams posted a better year-over-year record and kenpom.com efficiency ranking each season. The Rams have followed a similar trajectory in his three seasons in Fort Collins. (Medved spent just one season at Drake before hopping over to CSU.)
One clear concern with Medved would be his ability to recruit the region around Oklahoma – he has zero experience there. You could also make a good case that the Mountain West Conference’s reputation doesn’t match reality lately in terms of the quality of its teams.
Medved’s Rams are playing in the NIT semifinals on Saturday if you’re interested in sampling his handiwork.
Dennis Gates, Cleveland State
Gates may feel like an obscure candidate, but he has done remarkable work in two seasons as head coach of Vikings.
The 41-year-old served as an assistant for Leonard Hamilton at Florida State from 2011 to 2019 before taking over a Cleveland State program teetering on implosion. The team improved from 11-21 a year ago to 19-8 in 2021. The Vikings also won the Horizon Conference Tournament this year to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Recruiting background again looks like a drawback with Gates, who played at California from 1998 to 2002 and has done most of his coaching in Florida and the Midwest. On the other hand, he played a key role as an assistant in some of FSU’s biggest wins out on the trail. He could get the lay of the recruiting land at OU quickly.
Gates probably needs a little more seasoning at a Cleveland State or a slightly larger program before he ends up on the radar of a program like OU. The early signs are still positive.
Other names to know
Mark Turgeon, Head Coach, Maryland – National writers such as Andy Katz and Seth Davis are linking Turgeon to OU. That sounds a lot like an agent looking for an off ramp for a client.
Carlin Hartman, Assistant Coach, Oklahoma – Hartman joined Kruger’s staff in 2016. Castiglione would go this direction if continuity is his top priority.
Paul Mills, Head Coach, Oral Roberts – Hot candidate at the moment based on the Golden Eagles’ success in this year’s tournament. Otherwise, his case isn’t strong.
Quannas White, Assistant Coach, Houston – An OU alum on Kelvin Sampson’s staff makes for a nice pedigree. That’s big leap, however. You could throw Kellen Sampson’s name into this ring, as well. Again, a big leap.