Izzo concerned about Kruger's Sooners

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Oklahoma’s Ryan Spangler averages a team-leading 8.2 rebounds.

As the NCAA Tournament puts the opening weekend in the rear-view mirror and looks toward the Sweet 16, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is getting plenty of love.

It's well-deserved considering he just led the Spartans to their seventh Sweet 16 in eight years and 13th in his 18 appearances. Add his 13-1 record in the round of 32 and 20-4 mark in the second game of an NCAA Tournament weekend, and the praise for Izzo in March is coming from every direction.

But as good as Izzo has been, Lon Kruger has quietly been pretty good in the postseason as well.

The coach led the Sooners to a 72-66 victory over Dayton on Sunday to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009. And while it ended a drought for the third-seeded Sooners, it's familiar territory for Kruger.

He became the first coach to take four teams (Kansas State, Florida, UNLV, Oklahoma) to the Sweet 16. That came two days after he earned at least one Tournament victory with five schools.

"It obviously doesn't make a lot of difference in people's lives," he said after the victory over Dayton. "Certainly won't in mine. But it means we've had a lot of good players, a lot of good programs and certainly proud of this group. Kind of tough conditions right there. We weren't playing the way we wanted to. I thought Dayton was playing extremely well and to dig in right there when they did, I thought they showed a lot of growth on their part."

Kruger and Izzo, whose team face off at 10 p.m. Friday in the East Regional semifinals, have had their share of battles. Kruger coached at Illinois from 1996-2000 before heading to the NBA and the Hawks, whom Izzo turned down.

"Lon and I have been friends and have known each other forever," Izzo said on WMGC. "He's been in the league and has taken four or five different teams and to rebuild them into NCAA-caliber teams like he has means he's got a hell of a system. They do and they've got good players and it will be another dogfight for us."

It didn't take Izzo long to start diving into preparation for the Sooners. He was watching film after the Spartans returned to East Lansing after their victory, and was seeing a starting lineup that has been together all 34 games this season with four of the five averaging in double-figures.

The leader is junior guard Buddy Hield, the Big 12 player of the year. He is averaging better than 17 points and scored 15 against Dayton.

Hield and Michigan State freshman Lourawls Nairn are friends from their days growing up in the Bahamas, and both attended Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kansas. In fact, many believed Nairn was headed to Oklahoma before Izzo and Michigan State recruited him late.

Hield is joined in the backcourt by junior Isaiah Cousins, who is averaging 12.2 points and shooting 45 percent from 3-point range. Sophomore Jordan Woodard has started all 66 games during his career and knows the Sooners will be tested.

Buddy Hield is the Big 12 player of the year.

"I feel like they're a great defensive team, well-coached team, and they play solid," he said. "I feel like it's going to be a good challenge for us, but we've got to come out and play our ball no matter who we're playing. We've just got to play the best ball we can play."

That will be helped by senior forward TaShawn Thomas, a transfer from Houston and the Big 12 newcomer of the year, as well as 6-foot-8 forward Ryan Spangler, a transfer from Gonzaga.

Thomas had 18 points and five blocks in a victory over Albany while Spangler is shooting 62 percent.

All but Thomas played last season when Michigan State beat Oklahoma, 87-76, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Cousins had 15 points in that game while Hield scored 13. Branden Dawson scored 18 and grabbed 10 rebounds for Michigan State.

But Michigan State is without Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling.

"We played last year and they have a lot of guys from that team," Izzo said. "We beat them in a tough game but we had a pretty good team last year."

And while Izzo added that Michigan State likely will be behind in terms of talent the rest of the way, Kruger wasn't buying it.

"We know it's going to be tough," he said. "When you get to the Sweet 16, everyone deserves to be there. They've gotten there for a reason. ... Our guys know that the seeds really don't mean anything."



Getting to know … Oklahoma

Location: Norman, Okla.

Enrollment: 30,786

Famous alums: Olivia Munn, James Garner, Blake Griffin, Adrian Peterson, Billy Sims

Conference: Big 12

Coach: Lon Kruger

2014-15: 24-10 (12-6, 3rd)

Scoring: Buddy Hield, 17.3

Rebounds: Ryan Spangler, 8.2

Assists: Jordan Woodard, 3.9

Blocks: TaShawn Thomas, 1.5

Offense: 43.7 shooting, 34.6 3-pointers, 71.9 scoring

Defense: 38.6 shooting, 31.6 3-pointers, 62.8 scoring

Did you know? Oklahoma is one of six teams that has started the same five players in every game. Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler and Jordan Woodard have all started the last 66 games while TaShawn Thomas has started all 129 during his career (96 at Houston). … Oklahoma's seven wins against ranked opponents are the most in school history in one season.