First off, wishing a blessed, Happy Easter to all.
One of the most underrated college basketball coaches of our era is likely to finally get his due this week. In fact, the same might be said about two coaches as the NCAA Tournament soon approaches its climax.
Lon Kruger has quietly had a terrific career, despite often operating just outside the nation’s conscious. Maybe it’s his low-key manner, perhaps it’s because he’s never coached at a true blueblood school, or maybe it’s because he has never stayed at a job for more than seven years, but Kruger is a coach most may feel they don’t know very well (ESPN’s Dana O’Neil recently did a nice job filling us in).
That should change this week after second-seeded Oklahoma clinched its first Final Four berth in 14 years by defeating top seed Oregon 80-68 in the West Region final. With that, Kruger also will lead his second team to the Final Four, and he will do it with his second different school and 22 years after his first trip in 1994 with Florida.
The Sooners got there by riding this season’s best clutch player, as Buddy Hield scored 37 of OU’s 80 points. Hield hit eight three-pointers and Oklahoma hit 12 of 24 from deep, proving that its outside shooting game can indeed take it a long way in the postseason. The Sooners also took advantage of cold shooting by the Ducks, who hit just 4 of 21 from three-point range, and Oklahoma finally avenged a previous NCAA tourney loss to Oregon-77 years later. The Ducks defeated the Sooners 55-37 in the national semifinals in 1939, the first-ever NCAA Tournament.
Kruger has been a master builder of programs going all the way back to his days at Pan American (nee Texas-Pan American, now Texas-Rio Grande Valley). His teams have always been very good, but seldom great. Make no mistake: this year’s Oklahoma team can now be called a great team in this 2015-16 season.
In reaching his second Final Four, Kruger also kept another badly underrated coach from his first trip to the national semis who also happens to be his protégé. Dana Altman once was an assistant to Kruger at Kansas State and has gone on to a stellar career as a head coach, and this year was his furthest advancement in the NCAAs but came up just short of his first Final Four berth.
Villanova’s Jay Wright probably gets a little more pub than Kruger if for no other reason than his location (Philadelphia, East Coast, in a major media market) and his style (always known as one of the coaching fraternity’s snappiest dressers, he also has done commercials for men’s hair care products). Wright’s program has taken a few shots in recent years, though, for its inability to get deep in the NCAA tourney despite prime seeds, but that should change after the second-seeded Wildcats knocked off No. 1 overall seed Kansas 64-59 in the South Region final.
Despite being notably and repeatedly marked this year as a very good team but also one with few stars, Villanova out-toughed the Jayhawks and also was the rare team in this year’s tournament that actually played well with a lead down the stretch in a game, and this result should go a long way towards curbing any doubts there were about this program’s ability to compete on the national level. It also should-should-put to bed the idea that the current iteration of the Big East is a second-class conference.
The win gives Villanova its second Final Four under Wright and its first since 2009. Now 15 years into his tenure at the school-yes, it really has been that long-Wright has done a masterful job building the Wildcats back into a power while also embracing and following the legacy of a program with a rich history as well as the memory of the 1985 NCAA champions still not far from any minds.
As Hoopville’s Paul Borden noted after the Wildcats’ win over Miami (Fla.) on Thursday, this year’s team is starting to bear some resemblance to that 1985 championship squad. No team has played consistently better through four games in this year’s event, and few have been consistently better in Wright’s 15 years. And while no one is shedding tears for either one-both who are among the many, many coaches in this sport who are more than well-compensated-both Wright and Kruger have done much of it with relatively little fanfare.
- The NCAA Tournament East and Midwest Region finals are today, but not until tonight (and also on cable, not national television) due to ridiculous scheduling by the TV networks as well as the NCAA leadership’s shortsighted continued willingness to sacrifice common sense for every last penny. The Midwest final is first with 10th-seeded Syracuse against 1 seed Virginia (6:09 p.m. EDT, TBS), and that is followed, naturally, by the East Region final starting at 8:49 p.m. EDT with sixth-seeded Notre Dame against No. 1 North Carolina.
- The CIT also plays its semifinals on Easter. New Jersey Tech tries again to make the tourney final after getting as far as the semis last year, this time playing at Columbia (6 p.m., CBSSN). The second semi has UC Irvine on the road yet again, traveling to play Coastal Carolina (9 p.m., CBSSN).
Again, a very Happy Easter to all.