Lon Kruger isn’t a genius. He isn’t a giant. He isn’t a masterful maestro who fields elite teams and rides them to one of the top two seed lines on Selection Sunday nearly every year.
He isn’t John Calipari. He isn’t Bill Self or Coach K. He isn’t Roy Williams or Tom Izzo. He won’t be seen as an elite coach… because when measured against the very best in college basketball, he isn’t.
This might feel like a criticism, but it’s not.
There are Roger Federers and Rafael Nadals and Novak Djokovices in tennis, but not everyone — not even most people — can be the giants.
There are the Golden State Warriors of today and the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s and the Boston Celtics of the 1960s, and then there are the NBA teams which won an occasional championship or made a few NBA Finals appearances, but save for the turbulent 1970s, the NBA has largely been a dynastic league. Only a select few teams win at the highest level.
If I was to compare Lon Kruger and his coaching career to an NBA team, it would be the 1980s Milwaukee Bucks under Don Nelson: never good enough to beat both the Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs and go to the Finals, but always solid, responsible, competent, and better than most teams in the league. Those Bucks were rarely great, but just as rarely mediocre. Their report card generally earned a B — above-average. Nothing more, nothing less.
Let’s step back and appreciate that for what it is, after Kruger coached the Oklahoma Sooners to a resounding win over the Kansas Jayhawks on Tuesday night. Despite their sub-.500 Big 12 Conference record, the Sooners are fairly safely in the NCAA Tournament now. They played their way off the bubble.
Oklahoma won’t suffer if it loses to possible Big 12 champion Kansas State this upcoming Saturday. Only a loss in round one of the Big 12 Tournament could potentially jeopardize OU’s NCAA Tournament status. As long as the Sooners win that game, they should be completely safe. Even if the Sooners lose that first game in the Big 12 Tournament, they would probably still get in the Big Dance, possibly in the First Four.
Oklahoma would have been in big trouble with a loss to Kansas. Tuesday’s win very likely got the Sooners in the Big Show once more.
While OU is not an absolute lock, it is close. Let’s assume the Sooners have their name called on Selection Sunday. Here’s what it would mean, among other things:
First, it would mean that Kruger — following four seasons with Texas-Pan American in the 1980s, for a program which lacked a conference affiliation — would be 19 for 29 in seasons with an NCAA Tournament at conference-affiliated programs. At Kansas State (Big 8), Florida (SEC), Illinois (Big Ten), UNLV (Mountain West), and Oklahoma (Big 12), Kruger will have made 19 NCAA Tournaments in 29 seasons.
That seems modest until you dig into a few more details:
Kruger took over Florida after the Gators had been hit by NCAA probation and scholarship reductions flowing from the scandal which took down former national championship head coach Norm Sloan (who won it all in 1974 at North Carolina State).
Kruger took over UNLV after Charlie Spoonhour had to resign for health reasons.
Kruger took over at Oklahoma after Jeff Capel failed to capitalize on the Blake Griffin Elite Eight run in 2009.
Kruger has inherited programs when they were in disrepair. If you allow for the claim that first seasons at programs should not carry NCAA Tournament expectations, Kruger’s 19-of-29 NCAA Tournament batting average actually becomes something more like 23 of 29 (two seasons at Florida after probation, one at UNLV, one at OU). That is close to 80 percent over nearly 30 years in the salt mines.
No, Kruger’s teams don’t rise to the 2 line every year. His teams don’t snap into focus every February the way Roy Williams and John Calipari teams always seem to do. He isn’t a giant in the profession.
He is the 1980s Milwaukee Bucks, never getting the glory but almost never being average or ordinary.
If the Sooners make the field of 68, it will also be true that since Kruger’s first (transitional) season in Norman — 2011-2012 — Oklahoma will have missed the NCAA Tournament only once, in 2017. Six NCAA Tournaments in the last seven seasons.
Bill Self is the giant among Big 12 coaches. Bob Huggins will be in the Hall of Fame. Chris Beard is beginning to create a superstar coaching trajectory. Scott Drew has done phenomenal work at Baylor. Bruce Weber has just delivered one of the best seasons of his career. It is easy for Kruger to get lost in the shuffle — just like the Milwaukee Bucks of the 1980s — but guiding a team picked to finish eighth in a 10-team conference and leading it to the NCAA Tournament represents good, solid work.
Yes, Beard taking Texas Tech — picked seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll — to a possible No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament is ridiculously great, far better than Kruger’s body of work this year.
That means Beard has been spectacular. It DOESN’T mean Kruger has been rubbish.
Kruger has been competent, solid, decent — not outrageously amazing or transformative, no, but he will make yet another NCAA Tournament.
Ask his former employers at UNLV and Illinois if they would “merely” like to make NCAA Tournaments these days.
Ask programs such as Georgia or Clemson if that track record is unacceptable.
Ask any of several Pac-12 or Big East programs if making the NCAA Tournament nearly every year is ho-hum and even somewhat disappointing.
Lon Kruger, the 1980s Milwaukee Bucks of college basketball coaches and one of only two men (Tubby Smith) to take five schools to the NCAA Tournament, will quietly carry on, out of the spotlight.
So will his Oklahoma Sooners, very probably in yet another Big Dance this March.
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