The Oklahoma Sooners last made the Final Four in 2002, yet I don’t recall much about it.
I remember assuming the second-seeded Sooners would handle the fifth-ranked Hoosiers, then thump either the Kansas Jayhawks or Maryland Terrapins in the National Final. After all, the Sooners had already beaten Maryland once that season by a score of 72-56 at Lloyd Noble. They also knocked off the Jawhawks in the Big 12 Conference Championship game earlier that month. The Sooners would eventually lose to an Indiana Hoosiers squad that featured some dude named Dane Fife and future NBA journeyman Jared Jeffries. They lost to the Hoosiers in large part to their inability to reign in reserve forward Jeff Newton, who scored 19 points and grabbed 6 boards. It also didn’t help that the Sooners’ starting backcourt of Hollis Price and Quannas White shot a combined 1-16 from the field and 0-8 from three that evening.
Bummer, but no biggie, I mused. The Sooners would be back again next season.
Except that didn’t happen, either. The Sooners landed a #1 seed in the 2003 NCAA Tournament, but wound up getting trucked by Syracuse in the Elite 8 in Albany, New York. How the top-seeded Sooners wound up playing a virtual home game against the 3rd seeded Orange in the Regionals still gives me mild heartburn to this day.
Like many other Sooner fans, I’ve been waiting impatiently for the next Final Four trip ever since.
A rebuilding and injury-ravaged team limped into the NIT the next season, and the Sooners would advance no further than the opening weekend of the Tournament in the two seasons after. Kelvin Sampson took his cell phone and left for Bloomington, Indiana and Jeff Capel was hired. A prized recruiting class bolted. Capel’s first season produced a 16-15 team that watched the postseason on television.
Blake Griffin’s arrival a year later injected a jolt into the basketball program, but even his two-year stay in Norman feels like money was left on the table. Griffin returned for his sophomore season even though he likely would have been a top-5 NBA draft pick after his freshmen season. His return brought hopes of another Final Four appearance and maybe, just maybe, the first basketball National Championship in school history. Those dreams came to an abrupt halt in Memphis to the hands of Ty Lawson, Danny Green, Tyler Hansbrough and the North Carolina Tarheels.
I don’t believe anyone predicted that the Sooners would not play in the postseason for another four years.
The next few seasons were some kind of nightmarish blur. Tiny Gallon. Tommy Mason-Griffin. Oronde Taliaferro. Nick Thompson. Calvin Newell. Three years of probation. All thirteen victories from 2009-10 vacated. Blowout losses to Baylor. An overtime victory at home versus North Carolina Central. Multiple losing streaks of eight games or more. The eventual firing of Capel. The Sooners basketball program was in a dark place before hiring Lon Kruger away from UNLV on April 1, 2011.
The Sooners paid dearly, $16.6 million over 7 years, to bring Kruger to Norman. The Sooners weren’t just in dire need of a competent person to run the men’s basketball program. They needed to prove to the NCAA that they were serious about playing by the rules. Kruger is as squeaky clean as he is kind and generous. As an added bonus, he’s a heck of a basketball coach.
Kruger coached his team back into the NCAA Tournament in his second season and his teams have steadily improved every season since. And for the first time in 14 years, the Sooners are back in the Final Four and in position to win the whole thing.
This time, I won’t take this Final Four appearance for granted. This team is the culmination of years of continuity with Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler, and Jordan Woodard. Three of those four will play their final college game soon. Who knows how long it will take the Sooners to produce another dominant team? Appreciate the moment.