Two men with over 1,000 wins between them and who are leading the charge for Big 12 Coach of the Year honors will faceoff on Wednesday night, and not for the first time. Both Texas Tech coach Orlando “Tubby” Smith and Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger have taken over programs and left them off better than they found them.
Smith took over Georgia in 1995 while Kruger was the headman at Florida and immediately led the Bulldogs to a 21-10 record in his inaugural season in the Southeastern Conference.
Kruger had just come off a season that ended with his Gators making a Final Four appearance and Kruger being named SEC Coach of the Year. The following season, his Gators only won 17 games and were ousted in the first round of the tourney while Smith’s Bulldogs earned their way to the Sweet 16.
A couple years later Smith moved west to Kentucky and won championships. Lon made a stop at Illinois and then tried his hand at coaching in the NBA before moving WAY west to coach UNLV. But both men have remained in touch, and Kruger has the utmost respect for Smith.
“Tubby’s great. We spend a lot of time together in the offseason as well at conventions or meetings or charities,” he said. “We go back a long way.”
Kruger took over an OU team that had only won 14 games in 2010-11 and managed to eek out just one more win with it than former Sooner coach Jeff Capel had with many of the same players. Two years later the Sooners are in the conversation for the Big 12 regular season title race, just two games back of the boys from Lawrence, Kan.
Smith is still in the midst of his first season in Lubbock, Texas, but already the Red Raiders are playing better than they were a year ago. They rank 20th in the country in offense rebounding percentage — the number of available offensive boards a team pulls down — and rank among the top 50 programs in the country in block percentage, two-point shot percentage, free throw percentage and adjusted offensive efficiency.
Tech averages 112 points per every 100 offensive possessions. But you’d be lucky to see them get anywhere near 100 possessions in a game because they’re also methodical about how they play.
Whereas the Sooners like to run, averaging north of 72 possessions a game, Tech ranks among the slowest teams in Division I (No. 333) in average possessions per game with 63. It’s a clash in styles certainly between OU and Tech, and both teams are clearly compensating for their faults.
The Sooners aren’t big. Their tallest players are each 6-foot-8, and they’re so thin in the post that they have to start four guards on the floor and depend on one man to control the paint.
Tech isn’t built to run, isn’t built to score or defend outside the paint. And it shows. Tech shoots a paltry 32.7 percent from beyond the arc and owns one of the worst 3-point shooting defenses in the Big 12. Sooner guard Buddy Hield’s ability to make treys could prove crucial against a team that recently knocked off a ranked Oklahoma State team and has already won more games this year (12) than it did all of last year (11). Still, Smith isn’t settling.
“My expectations are to have been better,” he said. “I think we have a group of young men who need to continue to overachieve, and that’s the only way you can be successful whether you have the talent or not. It’s not enough just to be talented. You’ve got to perform.”
Smith and the Red Raiders have eight games left in the regular season; eight games to navigate this carnivorous conference.
If Tech does run the table in these last three weeks of February, there’s no telling where the Red Raiders could end up by mid-March. After all, it only took a 20-11 record for the Sooners to gain entrance into the NCAA tournament.
With a win against Oklahoma, Tech could be on its way to something great, and the Sooners would likely kiss their chances of a competing for the conference regular season title goodbye. There’s something more to play for tonight than just a single league win, and Smith has a reputation for not only readying his teams to play but getting them to play at their best when it counts. No one knows this better than Kruger.
“His team is going to be ready,” he said. “They’ll be very well prepared and play good basketball. Lot of respect for that.”