Oklahoma's Kruger, Oregon's Altman test bond in Elite Eight
ANAHEIM >> Lon Kruger and Dana Altman are headed to Scotland in July for the latest golfing adventure in their three-decade-long friendship.
"We're still doing that, I guess, regardless of what happens tomorrow," Kruger said with a wry smile Friday.
Indeed, the coaches first have a date in Orange County on Saturday, and it won't be quite as much fun for either of them.
Altman's top-seeded Oregon Ducks (31-6) are facing Kruger's second-seeded Oklahoma Sooners (28-7) in the West Region final for a spot in the Final Four.
Kruger and Altman hoped they would never have to coach against each other, and they had managed to avoid it throughout their parallel careers. But with two powerhouse teams heading into a landmark game for both programs, this coaching collision is unavoidable.
"When the pairings came out a couple weeks ago, I talked to Coach," Altman said Friday. "We just said at that time that if we're fortunate to get to this point, at least one of us is going to go to the Final Four."
Their friendship came out of a calculated acquisition by Kruger in 1986 when he hired Altman to join his staff at Kansas State. Kruger wanted Altman's youthful energy and smarts — but he really wanted Mitch Richmond and a handful of Altman's other players on the nation's top-ranked junior college team in Missouri.
Their three years together led to three NCAA Tournament berths and the start of an enduring bond.
"We've got a handful of coaches that are best friends, and certainly Dana is one of them," Kruger said.
Kruger reached the 1994 Final Four with Florida, but hasn't been back since. Altman has never reached the Final Four in a quarter-century in charge of four programs.
The West finale is both a test and a celebration of their careers. The coaches have built remarkably similar teams, with both relying on deep, balanced rosters of athletic players surrounding an elite scorer: Oklahoma's Buddy Hield and Oregon's Dillon Brooks.
"Both clubs prefer the (high) pace," Kruger said. "They prefer the tempo. We certainly are better when we're able to go. I think they are, too."
Some more things to consider in these schools' first meeting in 75 years:
UP ON OREGON: Saturday is a historic time for the Ducks, who won the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles to earn the first No. 1 seed in school history. The Ducks have rolled into the regional final with a school-record 31 wins, but they realize they can't reach their first Final Four since 1939 in a building likely to be packed by their West Coast fan base.
UP ON OKLAHOMA: The Sooners' core four of Hield, Ryan Spangler, Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins will start its 104th consecutive game together, along with 36 straight starts by Khadeem Lattin. OU is after its first Final Four trip since 2002. "We ride and fight all together, so I think ending on a good note would be special for us," Hield said.
STOPPING HIELD: The Oklahoma starters' collective experience and togetherness is remarkable in the modern game. The Ducks are appropriately impressed, but they're also determined to defend the perimeter against Hield and his teammates, who have the second-best 3-point shooting percentage in the nation (.426). "We haven't seen a team like this with a core group that's been there for all four years, and we've never seen a player who shoots the ball like Buddy Hield," Brooks said. "We're really going to have to run them off the line and not let them get easy baskets."
JUICY HISTORY: These schools actually met in the first NCAA Tournament back in 1939, when Oregon beat Oklahoma in the West Region final in a game played on Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Oregon went on to win the national title. The schools met again in the 1940-41 season, and they haven't met since then.
MITCH'S FOOTPRINTS: Richmond led the two coaches' Wildcats to the Elite Eight, and Altman landed his first Division I head coaching job a year later at Marshall. A year after that, Altman replaced Kruger at K-State when Kruger left for Florida. Richmond's son, Phil, is a walk-on at Oregon. Mitch Richmond attended Thursday's games to watch both of his former coaches. "I owe so much of my career to Coach Kruger, but I probably owe more to Mitch," Altman said.