Before there was a No. 2 seed and getting to play in essentially its backyard of Oklahoma City for the NCAA tournament. Before there was the “Boom Squad” of incredible fan support.
Even before the trio of Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler. Before any of that was the 2011-12 edition of Oklahoma’s basketball team.
Not much was written about that group then, not much is written about that group now. Year No. 1 for Lon Kruger in Norman, and it was a struggle.
A struggle to change the identity of the program following the turbulent years of Jeff Capel. A struggle to get the program back on the right track and start thinking about trips to the NCAA tournament once again.
Kruger’s first recruit? A junior college point guard named Sam Grooms.
“I remember the first call we ever had,” Grooms said. “Coach Kruger was talking about being a part of something, part of the growth of the program. He said if you do what’s asked of you, you’ll have a successful career here.
“There wasn’t a bunch of foolishness. I came on my official visit to Norman and could tell the people were loving. They were begging for a good coach to come here and turn things around.”
OU went 15-16 that season and 5-13 overall in the Big 12. Included in that rebuilding year was a 38-point loss at Missouri, losing 10 of 12 conference games during one stretch and five home defeats in conference play.
A far cry from the Loud Noble Center moniker OU fans earned this season. Those within the program know how much that first year meant. The season is not forgotten. The players are not forgotten. They paved the way for what has come now. You have to learn to crawl before you learn to walk.
“We have a lot of pride in it,” Grooms said. “All of us from that first season. We know we put the groundwork in. We remember Buddy and Isaiah getting there as we were leaving. We’ve seen them go from babies to men.
“They’re head and shoulders different now. They’ve improved as basketball players, but even more important than that, as young men.”
Grooms played two seasons with the Sooners, starting 29 of 31 games as a junior before coming off the bench primarily as a senior.
He had an interesting way to describe life after being a Sooner, saying eventually the ball goes flat. Grooms wasn’t going to be able to play the game forever, but he has found a second life on the hardwood as a coach.
Grooms just completed his first season as an assistant coach at Connors State.
“It has been interesting,” Grooms said. “I’m getting a chance to see things from the other side of the spectrum and in a different way.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do even from a young age.”
He knew what he wanted to do, but Grooms wasn’t quite sure how to get there. The OU coaching staff helped guide the way.
OU coaches Lon Kruger, Chris Crutchfield, Lew Hill and Steve Henson all put in positive words about Grooms and did whatever they could to help Grooms land on his feet for his first job.
“It was one of the best feelings,” Grooms said. “You almost don’t even know what to say. But you know Coach Kruger. You see it daily. He’s a man of integrity. If he says he’s got your back, he’s got your back.”
It also means Grooms did something right. The coaches weren’t going to vouch for just anybody. It says Grooms did things the right way when he was in Norman. Kruger said if Grooms did things the right way, he would succeed. Kruger was right.
Grooms said he talks to Crutchfield and Hill the most, developing the strong bond. Grooms, in turn, has tried to do the same thing with Hield.
“I keep in contact and try to be like that big brother,” Grooms said. “I try to keep them level-headed. This season speaks volumes of the team and the coaching staff. It means a lot to them and to all of us to say we’re not just a football school.”
Grooms was able to attend a few home games this season. Not as many as he would like, but that’s the nature of the business with Grooms finding his own way at Connors State.
There is no bitterness about the success the Sooners are having now. No resentment about the team playing in front of sold out, standing-room-only crowds. Just pride.
“I’m absolutely privileged to say I was able to play basketball at the University of Oklahoma,” Grooms said. “I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”