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Tuesday, December 20, 2011
OU on the rise with Lon Kruger


Oklahoma pulled off a solid coaching hire when it brought Lon Kruger back to the Big 12 to replace Jeff Capel.

How so? Kruger can be labeled as a bit bland, but he has been remarkably consistent wherever he has been, which includes stops at Kansas State (in the Big Eight), Florida, Illinois and UNLV. (It's not fair to lump in his coaching tenure with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks because that was a no-win situation.)

Lon Kruger
In his first season at Oklahoma, Lon Kruger's Sooners are off to a fast start.

Kruger isn't likely to compete for a national title with the Sooners. But his teams will be in the hunt for the postseason on a regular basis. His squads defend and improve over the course of a season, and trouble usually doesn't follow them around.

Kruger came in to replace Capel, who had a glorious run with Blake Griffin. But what followed was a hyped recruiting class that backfired and imploded on him, ultimately leading to violations within the program and Capel's exit from Oklahoma and back to Duke as an assistant.

Oklahoma was 14-18 overall last season and 5-11 in the Big 12 last season. The Sooners lost eight straight during conference play.

Kruger's first Oklahoma team, consisting of a number of unknowns heading into the season, is off to an 8-1 start. Its only loss was a 20-point defeat to Saint Louis in the 76 Classic final in Anaheim last month.

The schedule has decent names on it, but all of the programs except the Billikens are in a rebuilding phase (Washington State, Santa Clara, Arkansas and Houston). The Sooners' best victory might have been against Oral Roberts on Dec. 8.

Regardless, the fast start for a team projected to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 has given the Sooners confidence and relevance that they have lacked since Griffin left for the NBA. "The schedule is fair,'' Kruger said. "There were a half-dozen games that were [a] toss-up. We're gaining confidence while we're learning, and that's not always a luxury in certain situations.''

Oklahoma did return 70 percent of its scoring and 72 percent of its rebounding from 2010-11. But that production is from a team that finished with a subpar season.

And it doesn't take into account the improvement of Steven Pledger. Kruger is getting contributions from Pledger that Capel didn't, and his production has had a dramatic result on Oklahoma's win-loss record.

Last season, Pledger played in 32 games and averaged 30 minutes a game, but he produced only 10.9 points and 2.1 rebounds per game.

Now a season later: Pledger is averaging 29.5 minutes a game, scoring 19.5 points and leading all Division I guards with a 60.4 field goal percentage, including 51.2 percent on 3s. He was the Big 12's player of the week after scoring 31 points and grabbing 10 boards in the win over Houston in Oklahoma City on Saturday.

Pledger has already scored at least 20 points in four of the eight games he's played in. He accomplished that only three times in 32 games last season. His most impressive recent stat may be that he's averaging 18.5 points in the second halves of the past two games, converting all three 3s and 13 of 15 field goals during that stretch.

The 6-foot-4 junior guard has been the surprise player in the Big 12.

Kruger said he told Pledger to expect more from himself. And he's responded.

Sound simple? Apparently it was a mere matter of working hard over the summer and lofting countless shots at home in Virginia.

"Coach has given us so much confidence,'' Pledger said. "He's giving us a little bit of praise, and we're doing the right things on the court and off the court. Around campus, we're respectful, and it shows with what we're doing. Last year when we were losing, people didn't feel like talking much to other people.''

The Sooners are defending well in spots, and most Kruger teams get stingier as he puts his handprint on the program. "Our tempo is much faster and more up and down than last [season],'' Pledger said. "We're getting up more shots, and we're making our opponents tired.''

The Sooners visit Cincinnati on Thursday (ESPNU, 9 p.m. ET) before opening a brutal Big 12 conference stretch at Missouri and against Kansas in early January.

Oklahoma returns most of the team next season and add Wyoming transfer Amath M'Baye for two seasons. The word out of OU practice is that he'll have an impact.

But the rebuilding stage is ahead of schedule. There's no reason to believe the Sooners will finish in the top six ahead of Missouri, Baylor, Kansas, Texas A&M, Texas or Kansas State. But the start has given this team more confidence that it could have imagined.

Kruger said the Sooners have a long way to go and haven't been physical enough, especially on the boards. That will be an issue in the heart of the Big 12 season. "We can't get pushed around,'' Kruger said.

Kruger said he didn't plan on making the coaching move from UNLV, a place where he had become incredibly comfortable. But OU athletic director Joe Castiglione made the financial offer too rich to turn down. The NCAA issue has not affected the team, since it mainly hits the Sooners with official visits and some days on the road for recruiting.

All seems to be going quite well for a program that seemed in disarray just a season ago. "We'll have more challenges, but I really think we can pull off probably finishing closer to third, fourth or fifth,'' Pledger said. "I know we'll be in the postseason.''