OU men's basketball team unfazed by low expectations
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Coach Lon Kruger and junior forwards Andrew Fitzgerald and Romero Osby boarded an early morning flight Thursday to attend Big 12 basketball media day in Kansas City, Mo. Although it started at 8 a.m., they entered the Sprint Center in good spirits.
You would have never known they were picked to finish at the bottom of the conference in the Big 12 preseason poll and were absent from national preseason polls.
The Sooners return four starters from last season’s team, but those four players will have to contribute more if they’re going perform better than their 14-18 record from 2010-11 in a potent 10-team league this year.
Still, Kruger said he isn’t worried about how his team will perform in conference play. For now, he’s enjoying his time at practice with his team and looking for ways to improve his players every day.
“I think for a coach, the first two or three weeks of practice might be the most enjoyable because you see guys coming together, especially on the first-year situation like we’re in,” Kruger said. “You get to know guys a little better and see them develop individually and meshing together as a group.”
He said it was too early to know whom his starting five would be when the team opens against Idaho State on Nov. 11.
“I’m excited about the group,” Kruger said.
Kruger said he was excited to be back in the Big 12 Conference and admitted he’s mistakenly referred to it as the Big Eight several times.
Old habits die hard.
He played college basketball for Kansas State from 1971-74 and saw his No. 12 jersey retired there in 2006. He coached the Wildcats from 1986-1990 and took the team to the NCAA tournament all four years.
“Growing up just a few miles down the road here from Kansas City feels like coming back home,” he said.
Oklahoma fans hope Kruger can have the same effect on the Sooner men’s basketball program that he did at Kansas State. But Kruger said there won’t be much to rebuild.
“Just three years ago, [Oklahoma] was playing a game to go to the Final Four, so it’s really not that far removed,” he said.
Kruger said he and his staff are communicating to the players that OU is steeped in tradition, and they are responsible for carrying on that tradition.
Fitzgerald is one of those players who will be most expected to carry that legacy into the 2011-12 season, but he said he doesn’t feel any pressure as the team’s leading returning scorer.
“No pressure at all,” he said. “We’re just going to go out there and play basketball and just have fun. It’s more of a team concept; no more individuals. I’m just so excited to start playing.”
When he starts the season, he’ll have help.
Fitzgerald said he and Osby will be a formidable duo in the low post this season.
“We’re gonna hold it down,” he said. “Me and [Osby] are gonna hold it down in the paint this year.”
Osby sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules when he decided to leave Mississippi State. The 6-foot-8-inch junior will be counted on to bang the boards in Kruger’s system.
Osby said he’s up for the challenge, and he’s looking forward to the start of the season.
He has not played in game since 2009.
“It was frustrating sometimes being that far away from home, that far away from family,” Osby said. “I felt like I could help last year and contribute to [Oklahoma] last year. But I took that one year to get better, and I feel it was beneficial for me.”
With three weeks left until the season begins, Osby said he wasn’t fazed by what experts have had to say about the Sooners’ chances of winning the Big 12 and putting together a memorable season.
“A lot of people do have us ranked low,” Osby said. “That’s something we can’t really control. That’s something that we don’t really want to think about. We just know that we’re going to play hard, we’re going to work hard and do everything that coach tells us to do.
“I think at the end of the day, that’s going to put us in a position to be successful.”
At the end of the six-hour press conference, Kruger, Fitzgerald and Osby stepped back on a plane to head back to Norman.
There’s work to be done.