By CLIFF BRUNT
NORMAN, Okla. -- The emcee at Oklahoma's year-end banquet, Toby Rowland, paused to recall a recent conversation with coach Lon Kruger.
The "Voice of the Sooners" asked Kruger when he'd last been assessed a technical foul. Kruger paused, then said it was back when he coached the NBA's Atlanta Hawks more than 10 years ago.
While demonstrative coaches fill the highlights and grab headlines, the 61-year-old Kruger remains in control. The only coach to take five different schools to the NCAA tournament has done it the same way each time -- by using his calm demeanor, deep basketball knowledge and knack for cultivating relationships to get the most out of his teams.
"He never yells," sophomore forward Ryan Spangler said. "He just knows how to coach people."
Kruger took Kansas State to the regional finals in 1988, Florida to the Final Four in 1994 and UNLV to the regional semis in 2007. Oklahoma went 15-16 his first year in 2011-12, then reached the NCAA tournament last season. This season, the Sooners cracked the Top 25 for the first time since 2009 and have returned to the NCAA tournament.
Oklahoma (23-9), the No. 5 seed in the West Region, opens tournament play Thursday against No. 12 seed North Dakota State (25-6) in Spokane, Wash.
Getting the team to this point might be one of Kruger's better coaching jobs. Oklahoma was picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 after losing its top three scorers from last season.
Mainstays blossomed and newcomers fit in. Guard Buddy Hield more than doubled his scoring average as a sophomore and led the team with 16.8 points per game. Clark, the only senior starter, averaged 15.3 points. Spangler, a transfer from Gonzaga, averaged 9.8 points and 9.4 rebounds while shooting 59 percent from the field. Isaiah Cousins, a sophomore, averages 10.8 points and spearheads the team's perimeter defense. Freshman point guard Jordan Woodard averages 10.3 points and 4.7 assists.
Even with the youth and new faces, the Sooners finished second in the conference with no first-team All-Big 12 players. For that, Kruger was named the league's Coach of the Year.
"I just think he got everybody to buy in, just buying in with hard work, just going hard and doing everything on the defensive end," Clark said."
Kruger said this team's success is special because the squad needed unity to reach its potential, especially given the talent level of the rest of the conference. Seven of the 10 Big 12 teams earned NCAA tournament bids.
"I think it was obvious from the start that this group was going to invest and put the time in," he said. "That's a great starting point. They really like each other. They like making plays for each other. Combine that with the investment of time, and you've got a chance to make good things happen."
Though Kruger is accomplished, the players say the interactions with him trump everything. His basketball knowledge allows him to speak quietly, yet still get his point across.
"The first time I'd seen him in practice drawing on a board -- it's crazy how smart he is," Spangler said. "That made me respect him right then."
That respect allows Kruger to speak softly.
"He's the type of guy you want to listen to," Spangler said. "You don't want to upset him or make him mad at you, so all of our team, we just listen to whatever he says. Obviously, he's right most of the time."
Kruger transfers the knowledge to results by helping the players bond.
"He gets us as a team to play together," Hield said. "I think him doing that, bringing us together, even eating together, stuff like that -- little things like that help us win."
Even with a low volume, Kruger pushes his team. Oklahoma started the season winning by posting high point totals, but Kruger knew that to compete in the Big 12, the Sooners would have to play better defense. In practice and in news conferences, the message was the same. Finally, the Sooners got it, and the wins followed. Oklahoma finished with a 12-6 record in conference play.
"He's been harping on us all season about defense, and we finally listened to him the last month of the season because he knows what he's talking about, and we really bought into what he's talking about," Spangler said.
Both at the banquet and at his media session after the NCAA tournament selections were announced, Kruger deflected credit.
"It's been a fun group," he said. "It's been fun to watch them make the progress. It's been fun to watch them, as much as anything, buy into trusting each other to take care of respective responsibilities."