Q&A: OU coach Lon Kruger

Year No. 4 with Lon Kruger, and it could be the best one yet in Norman. Justin Hite sat down with the coach for an extensive question-and-answer session.

Entering your fourth year with the program, what are your thoughts on the upcoming season as a whole?

It’s a good bunch of guys returning. They’ll provide great leadership for the new players. They took good steps last year as a program, yet they want to do and think they can do a lot more, which is good. They’ll enter the year in the right frame of mind. They’ll work hard. They’ll be good teammates to one another and play the right way.

How has the adaptation been, now a couple years into the job and getting back into the fold of major-conference coaching?

People here have been great. They like our players, they like the way they play, they like their unselfishness, and they’ve been supportive in the progression, but we realize we have to do more. We want to do more. We want to play better basketball. I thought we scored points last year. We didn’t stop people as much as we need to. We’ll work really hard on that this year.

Are there any values you've tried to instill in the program, and how much does that come in a couple years into your tenure?

A program really is about the values. We’re trying to instill that all the time – our identity. We hope for each of our players that they’ll be responsible, they’ll be respectful, they’ll be good teammates, and they’ll be good ambassadors for the university and the program. They’ll have a good attitude about teammates and about others all the time. We’ve got a good bunch of guys with regard to those values.

How have the guys been in the offseason after making the NCAA Tournament and, not to put a bad emphasis on it, but being upset in the first round?

Their attitude has been great. Their understanding of what it takes and wanting to do more is really there. They worked hard in the spring and summer, and I know they will here in the fall. They’re anxious to get started again.

Going into this season, what do you see as the toughest game this year – a chance for the guys to kind of face a challenge?

Right off the bat, we’re at Creighton. On the road, we know that’s tough. A couple of home games sandwiched around that. We go to the Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas. It’s a terrific field there. We open with UCLA and then win/lose, we play the winner/loser of North Carolina/Butler. That’s a tough testing ground right off the bat. We’ve got a couple games on the road early. We’re at Tulsa. We’ve got Missouri here. We’ve got George Mason, Weber State, people that are good programs, not nationally ranked, but still good teams -- all leading up to a tough conference.

Is that something you like to do with the schedule, take programs that are strong in their conferences and have a history?

Always looking from an RPI and a strength of schedule standpoint. We’re always looking to do that. Mike Shepard, on our staff, is kind of the cornerstone for the scheduling. He does a really good job of identifying good teams that are maybe under the radar nationally but are good for the strength of schedule.

You talked about the Atlantis Tournament. How important do you think that will be for the guys, maybe not bringing home a championship, which I’m sure is the goal, but kind of getting in that tournament atmosphere and getting that feel?

It is important. It’s a tournament atmosphere. We’ve got three games in three days. You’ve got to call on the depth of your squad and the strength of your bench. It’s just a good yard stick with regards for what we need to work on going forward from there.

Is there a point in the season you see as a pivotal moment?

The year generally is always about pre-conference, conference, postseason for most people. For us, it’s no different. I think generally when you get in to conference play, there’s going to be a moment in there somewhere that separates those that are in the hunt for the championship and those that aren’t. Typically, that’ll happen somewhere in the middle of conference play. It probably won’t be any different this year.

Buddy Hield got a chance to go to two major camps this summer and is taking strides to improve his game. What do you think of him as a leader and a scorer?

Buddy will have a fantastic junior season. He’s prepared to do it. He’s worked hard for it. He had a great summer. He just likes to play so much. He’s in the gym so much that there’s not a lot of doubt about the type of year that he’ll have. He’ll be a good leader because of all that. His teammates respect how hard he works at it and how much he invests.

How important was it to get a hometown guy like Ryan Spangler back and how validated do you feel in your choice to go back and bring him home?

He’s been huge to the development of our program. He will be the face of our program from the standpoint of identity – in terms of blue-collar work ethic, team-first attitude, bringing it every day in practice, a little more physical notion for our team, which we need coming off of last year. It’s great to see him share that with his family and friends. The decision to be back home and finish out his career as a Sooner is great for everyone.

What are your thoughts on Frank Booker’s progression? Is he growing into a role?

Frank had a good freshman season. I think he’ll take a big step. I think he’s worked hard this summer. He’s changed his body around a little bit. He’s a little leaner, a little quicker. He shoots the ball extremely well, but yet he has a good feel defensively and is a good rebounder. He can do more things on the court as he gets older. I think he understands that too.

That’s some of the big stars, but who do you think could surprise the fans this season?

Guys have been here a while in D.J. Bennett, C.J. Cole. Those guys have had good summers and are working hard. New guys coming in with Dinjiyl Walker from junior college at the combo guard spot. Khadeem Lattin, Jamuni McNeace are two lanky, lean, talented freshmen that are going to really be good players for us. How quickly that happens remains to be seen, but I know they’ll both work at it really hard. They’ve got good motors, good energy and are excited about being Sooners.

Khadeem Lattin seems like a freshman that is ready for that spotlight. Is he a guy that can compete immediately or are there any freshmen that you think could play a major role this year?

Khadeem is probably the guy with the background and the confidence level to step in. It’s a different game coming from high school. I think he has an attitude that prepares him well to play effectively right away.

Is that something you look for in freshmen to play right away - an innate competitiveness?

The confidence level is always a factor for freshmen, especially for bigger guys, how physical the game is, the amount of contact and the strength involved. Khadeem and Jamuni are both very lean and bouncy, but that more solid base from a physical strength standpoint will be interesting to see how quickly that develops.

The ACC has loaded up on teams, but there was some thought last year that the Big 12 could have been the best conference in the country. How do you view the Big 12 and what do you think of the competition level?

It should be similar to what it was last year. It kind of emerged last year when people didn’t really know too much about the Big 12 because there were so many new players. This year, a number of teams in the league are returning a lot of players. Texas returns everyone. Kansas, you know they’re going to load up with high-level prospects as they’ve done. Iowa State has some new guys. Kansas State returns a lot of people. We return a lot of people. Right on down the line, you know the depth of the league is always going to be very good.

There wasn’t a lot of talk about you guys last year. You probably surprised some people with a second-place finish in the league. That surprise is gone. How are the guys preparing to play as a favorite?

The expectations are different this year. I think we have to do exactly that. It’ll be the first time that we’ve really encountered that in terms of not being the surprise team. They’ll be expectations for this group and we’ll have to prepare to handle that well.

Sooners Illustrated Top Stories