Buddy Hield, Sooner seniors cultivated a culture that will define Oklahoma’s program

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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HOUSTON — Buddy Hield has spent more time on a basketball court than anyone in college basketball. He’d work out as often as four times a day, which is how he turned himself from an athlete into a shooter and, last summer, from a shooter into the player that scored more points than anyone in the sport this season.

Whether it was 5:30 a.m. or midnight, if you were looking for Buddy, the best place to start would be on the closest basketball court that he could find. There wasn’t any place that he wanted to be more, which is what makes the way his career came to a close so heartbreaking.

For the first time in his life, as he went through the motions, playing out the final minutes of the worst loss he’ll ever take, Hield didn’t want to be on the floor.

He was done.

“No, but yes,” Hield said after the game when asked whether there came a point in the game when he just didn’t want to be on the court anymore. “They outfought us,” he added later.

It’s a shame that the lasting image we’ll have of one of the decade’s most likable superstars is of him going through the motions, playing out the final 13:25 without taking a single shot from the floor. It ends an era of Oklahoma basketball that mirrors the path that Hield’s career has taken.

Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler all enrolled at Oklahoma at the same time, Hield and Cousins as freshman and Spangler, an Oklahoma native, as a transfer from Gonzaga. They arrived in Kruger’s second season, a year after Oklahoma went 15-16 and just seven months after the fallout from Jeff Capel’s tenure resulted in three years of probation and a series of recruiting restrictions.

Everyone remembers how good Oklahoma was when Blake Griffin was winning Player of the Year awards. No one remembers that Willie Warren, Tiny Gallon and Tommy Mason-Griffin torpedoed that program and sent them to three straight losing seasons when Griffin left.

And once that trio of seniors gets over the pain and embarrassment of having their spirit broken on the biggest stage they’ll likely ever play on, they’ll realize that. They’ll realize that they played an integral roll in rebuilding the program.

“We’re proud about what you’ve done,” Kruger told his team in the locker room after the game. “You’ll get over this. When you look back, it won’t be about this today, it will be about what you’ve done. The work you’ve put in. The changes you’ve brought to the program. It’s unbelievable.”

“Because of what you did this year this program’s going to get better and better and better. You’re going to be at the heart of that forever.”

Perspective is the most difficult thing to have in a moment like that. For Ryan Spangler, who grew up as a Sooner fan in rural Oklahoma, the moment was particularly poignant. He was not recruited by Capel, so he wound up at Gonzaga for a year before transferring back home after his freshman season.

So not only did he get the chance to prove himself good enough to play in the Big 12, but he did so while helping to dig his boyhood team out of the self-inflicted hole they found themselves in.

“It’ll sink in soon. We’ll hang out tonight, cherish it a little longer then us seniors will head out on our different ways and try to make a name of our own,” Spangler said. “I had a blast. Got to play in front of my family and friends. Got to play with all these guys, turn it around and put it back on the map.”

And they gave the program an identity. No one works as hard as the Sooners, as least not in their minds. Hield’s work ethic is storied at this point, but he may not even be the best worker on the team. Isaiah Cousins works just as hard as Buddy.

“If not harder. Him and Isaiah don’t sleep,” Spangler said. “Buddy started it for us. Then Isaiah slowly caught on and I caught on.”

And, if all went according to plan, the rest of the team has caught on as well.

Which is what makes this group so special to Kruger.

It’s the first crop of seniors that he recruited, signed, developed and won with, yes, but it’s also the group of guys that built the foundation for the future of the Sooners.

That’s why Kruger will not let Saturday’s loss, as excruciating as it was to be a part of, be what defines his guys, in their minds or in the minds of the public at large.

“Don’t dwell on that,” Kruger told his guys. “You’ve got too may other great things that you’ve done. Cherish all of those things. You’ve got those for a lifetime.”

“So shoulders up, we’re not going to sulk around here.”