Three years ago, Kruger came to Oklahoma having already led four different schools to multiple NCAA Tournament appearances and tying the record for different teams led to the Sweet 16. Each of those schools won in the NCAA Tournament at least once.
Then, the process started, and it turned into a curse.
Kruger led Oklahoma to NCAA Tournament appearances in his second and third year as head coach but never found success. Even in the Big 12 Tournament, failure was abundant – having lost three straight games, all in the first game.
Whether as a favorite or an underdog, Oklahoma is still missing a single NCAA Tournament or Big 12 Tournament victory – a NCAA win would make Kruger the first coach to lead five different schools to an NCAA win and two wins would make Kruger the first coach to lead four teams to the Sweet 16.
But it still starts with one win – a win that has be elusive through three years already.
“We need to do that, no question,” Kruger said. “None of the guys on this squad have won in Kansas City or beyond. We need to do that. . . . We have to start having that attitude of winning in the postseason for sure.”
Oklahoma unexpectedly made the tournament two years ago as a 10 seed and lost to San Diego State by 15 points. A heavy favorite the next year against No. 12 North Dakota State, the Sooners lost again, 80-75 in overtime, on a very off night for high-scoring guard Buddy Hield.
“We’ve kinda been on both ends of it,” Kruger said. “This year, we need to take that next step.”
That leaves the Sooners in an unfortunate place, having just one postseason victory on the entire roster. Without transfer TaShawn Thomas, who helped guide Houston to a conference tournament win against SMU last year, that number would be zero.
The idea is to finally change that.
“I think it’s gonna change this time, though,” Hield said. “Everything is falling into the right place. The team, we’ve been thinking about that a lot. . . We’ve been talking about this. We need to get this monkey off our back. It’s been on our back too long. I feel like Coach Kruger is ready for that, too. Everybody is ready.”
It all sets up well for that monkey to finally head somewhere else. No. 6 Oklahoma State comes into Thursday night’s game having lost five of six games. The Sooners have won five straight against their Bedlam rival.
The sweep means next to nothing. Baylor lost twice last year to Oklahoma, which had beaten the Bears four straight times before last year’s Big 12 Tournament. It’s no secret how that game turned out.
“We need one,” Spangler said. “We've got momentum going in. As long as we keep playing like we have, executing a little better, we'll be fine. But once we get that one postseason win under our belt, it'll take off.”
Like no other sport, college basketball is centered around three weeks of play. From now until the end of March, nothing else matters or mattered.
There are too many postseason upsets to put much of an emphasis on the regular season. In that sense, Kruger’s third-straight, 20-win season means next to nothing when it compares to the Sooners’ 0-5 record in the postseason under the experienced coach.
Teams can put in months of work to reach the 20-win mark. Then, none of it matters. There’s no home-court advantage to win. Seeds hardly matter anymore – in the Big 12 or NCAA Tournament. There are too many matchup nightmares.
“We all know what's expected now,” assistant coach Chris Crutchfield said. “They know. As a staff, we know. You just want to go out and play well. Not think about the big picture and winning a game (but) just go play well. Approach it as—what's the old (saying)—‘Survive and advance.’”
Kruger called winning in the postseason a process. It’s one that has taken far too long to finally breed success. Thomas called it a curse: One that has watched Oklahoma fall by the wayside too many times.
This same starting lineup has been through the ringer now, gaining experience and learning how to win.
“I get the sense that our team will be more comfortable in postseason situations,” Crutchfield said. “. . . The next step – the next step people talk about – is this program is winning a game in the postseason. So, that's where we're at.
“. . . I feel like we're a lot more mature than we were at this time last year. That doesn't always get you results but we feel – as a group, as a staff – I think we feel better about it.”
Here’s a quick look at each member of the Sooners’ rotation and their regular-season grade, as well as what they need to do for Oklahoma to win its first postseason game under Kruger:
Buddy Hield, G … A
What needs to change? - It’s tough to ask for Hield to do much more. He won’t have to do much differently for Oklahoma to win a tournament game. For a deep run though, Hield has to not allow defenses to shut him down. He has been taken away when teams wanted to defend him well. That’s likely what the NBA wants to see too. Hield has at least 18 points in each of the past three games.
Jordan Woodard, PG… B
What needs to change? - Playing two of his better games to close the regular season, Woodard is showing much more consistency than he did earlier in the season. He doesn’t have a turnover in the past two games, but he needs to keep doing what he’s doing: Attacking the basket, making free throws and not turning the ball over.
Isaiah Cousins, G… B
What needs to change? - Despite being snubbed for the All-Big 12 team, Cousins is the best 3-point shooter in the conference. Cousins had a bad habit of disappearing for big games this season, but the last couple have been perfect. Don’t change what’s working now. Keep knocking down shots.
TaShawn Thomas, F… B-
What needs to change? - Thomas needs to be commanding. When Thomas struggles early in games, he disappears for the rest of it. For Oklahoma to beat Oklahoma State, Thomas can’t disappear – even if he misses his first two or three shots. A deep run and Thomas needs to be dominant, averaging the same numbers he did in three years at Houston – 14.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.
Ryan Spangler, F … B+
What needs to change? - The two-man game between Spangler and Woodard has been working well the last two games, Oklahoma needs that to keep going and even expand. If Spangler can keep his points and rebounds near 10 apiece, it would go a long way. Spangler can’t disappear on offense, an end of the court where he’s shown a lot of development this season.
Khadeem Lattin, F … A-
What needs to change? - Lattin’s negatives aren’t going to go away. He’s going to foul, and he’s going to be out of position on occasion. But the blocks are a game-changer. If Lattin can find a way to make a few buckets or go on a scoring surge at a big moment, it would be huge for the Sooners.
Dinjiyl Walker, G … C
What needs to change? - The bench has to get more production. It’s never been Walker and Frank Booker at the same time. Oklahoma will need both, especially Walker, who has been on a bit of a down-swing, if it wants to make a long run or win more than one game in either tournament.
Frank Booker, G … C+
What needs to change? - See Walker: Although, Booker has been the better of the two of late. Booker is shooting just under 37 percent during the final seven games of the season but went 11-for-23 during a four-game stretch late in the year. He can’t have an 0-for-5 performance, like he did against Iowa State.