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Doing what he does best, Kruger gives Sooners lift

It was a little past 3 p.m. Sunday when Bryant Gumbel’s brother announced that seventh-seeded San Diego State would play 10th-seeded Oklahoma in the NCAA Tournament in Philadelphia on Friday.

“I was just going to say how about the job that Lon Kruger has done?” CBS’s Greg Anthony said. “First coach in history to take five different programs to the NCAA Tournament.”

One Las Vegas guy talking up another Las Vegas guy, and isn’t that how we roll around here?

That’s right, I still consider Kruger one of us, first, because he still has his home in Southern Highlands on the golf course; and second, because he was at UNLV longer (seven seasons) than anywhere else.

“I don’t think too much about it,” the 60-year-old Kruger told reporters about the five dances with five dance partners thing. “Obviously, we’ve had a lot of good stops; we’ve been very fortunate.”

Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV, Oklahoma.

Kruger spoke of how he and his wife, Barb, have met a lot of good people on those stops, how the plan never was to leave one place for another place.

(I’m not really buying it in regard to Texas-Pan American, in Edinburg, Texas, their first stop — the only team Kruger did not take dancing during his coaching travels — though I’m sure Edinburg is lovely.)

Every now and then, when UNLV’s Anthony Marshall gets down on defense and slaps the floor, I still think of Kruger being among us. Marshall was one of his guys, and as I’ve said before, Kruger’s guys slapped a lot of floors and played a lot of defense, because Kruger’s guys had a hard edge.

And this is why I expect the Sooners to battle the Aztecs tooth and nail and occasional elbow in Philly. And also because Kruger knows Steve Fisher like he knows his 7-iron, though it should be said he hardly ever beat him.

The last time I saw Kruger, he was getting ready to wield the 7-iron in his Coaches vs. Cancer shindig here, an event for which he was presented an award for raising cancer awareness at last year’s Final Four.

He was under .500 then.

Oklahoma went 14-15 his first season, but that was OK with most folks around there, because folks around Norman were tired of Kelvin Sampson and Jeff Capel making illegal phone calls to recruits on their cellphones or whatever, and getting Oklahoma put on double-secret NCAA probation.

Lon Kruger does not make illegal phone calls. His programs always have been Zestfully clean, and lately that’s why people have been hiring him. That, and his penchant for taking other people’s recruits and rejects and molding them into winners.

The fat cats at Oklahoma paid Kruger $16.6 million over seven years to mold the Sooners into winners again. Like when Blake Griffin was there. And Tisdale and Billy Tubbs. But if I know the Oklahoma fat cats, they probably were expecting a return on their investment after three years.

Kruger has given it to them in two.

He isn’t under .500 any longer, he’s .645. Oklahoma begins the dance 20-11, and the Sooners beat Kansas once, and a lot of people are picking Kansas to win it all. And they should have beaten Oklahoma State twice; the fat cats at Oklahoma just love it when you beat T. Boone Pickens and that bunch up in Stillwater.

The Sooners start one of Capel’s guys (Steven Pledger) and one of Kruger’s guys (freshman Je’lon Hornbeak) and one of Rick Stansbury’s guys (Romero Osby) from Mississippi State and one of Heath Schroyer’s guys (Amath M’Baye) from Wyoming. And a fifth guy, usually another one of Kruger’s freshmen.

All get down and slap the floor on defense and take care of the ball on offense and do not take an abundance of bad shots, because an abundance of bad shots — or even one or two — will get you a seat next to Kruger on the bench.

But Oklahoma averages 71.1 points, UNLV 71.7, and make of that what you will.

A colleague and I recently were talking about the difference in styles between Kruger’s teams and Dave Rice’s first two UNLV teams, during which the words “night” and “day” were invoked.

I clicked on the Oklahoma website to check some stats. There was a photo on the homepage of Kruger giving his mishmash of a starting lineup an earful during a timeout. His eyebrow was raised. Both eyebrows.

Kruger is one of the game’s true gentlemen, but when a 22-point lead at Texas is evaporating, he still can get a little hot under the collar.

You don’t see that much around here anymore.

But on Friday during an early timeout, Dave Rice was seen giving the Rebels a Kruger-like earful in the Mountain West semifinals against Colorado State, and then the Rebels went on to win. And so maybe hearing an earful from the coach every now and then isn’t such a bad thing come tournament time, when the Madness begins.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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