OU basketball: How Lon Kruger's ever-changing starting lineups have developed deepest Sooners team in years
NORMAN — During OU's run to the Final Four in 2016, Sooners coach Lon Kruger started the same lineup 37 consecutive times.
The year before, the same five starters started all 35 games. In 2013-14, OU had the same starting lineup in all 33 games.
In fact, during that 105-game stretch, four of the Sooners’ starters remained the same, with only the center spot changing from year to year.
This season, as OU has its best chance to make a deep NCAA Tournament run since 2016, there hasn’t been nearly that level of stability.
Kruger has used six different starting lineups, none more than six times.
Umoja Gibson has moved out and back into the starting lineup. Same thing for Brady Manek, who started the first nine games at the power forward spot, missed two, came off the bench for five and has started the last two in the post. Elijah Harkless moved into the starting lineup when Manek was out and has started the last nine games.
Some of the changes have been due to COVID-19 protocols but plenty have also been due to matchups and going with the hot hand.
Whatever the reasons, Kruger’s lineup adjustments have paid off, as the No. 9 Sooners have won seven of their last eight to move into sole possession of second place in the Big 12 at 13 overall and 8-4 in conference play.
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“The key there is how players handle that and they’ve handled it well,” Kruger said. “They know the people that get production and the people who are the most effective will be in there more. That’s the way it always is.”
Recently, Gibson has been the key to that. Since moving back into the starting lineup Jan. 30 against Alabama, Gibson has averaged 16.3 points and 1.8 steals and is shooting 51.7% form behind the 3-point line in the last four games.
Before that, Gibson was averaging 8.9 points and 1.1 steals, shooting 42% from beyond the arc.
“(I’m) letting everything come to me,” Gibson said. “Just picking my poison off everybody else’s mistakes. If they leave me open, I take it. If not, just making the right plays.”
Gibson, who transferred from North Texas after spending the last three seasons in Denton, started the season’s first two games before moving to the bench.
“I know it’s a long season,” Gibson said. “There are a lot of ups and downs during the course of the year. It’s really just staying the course, being you and trusting the process and things will eventually come your way when you work hard.”
That’s an attitude that’s been prevalent for the Sooners this year.
“We’re a resilient group,” said Kur Kuath, who started 15 of the first 16 games before coming off the bench in the last two. “Everybody knows their role and what they’re best at. Everybody knows their strengths and weaknesses and we use each other’s strengths and weaknesses to get each other better.
“Everybody is comfortable in their role and we’re a great team because of everybody being comfortable and respecting their roles.”
The challenges figure to keep coming for the Sooners in an unpredictable season, but the Sooners have already evolved from a team with one of the best starting lineups in college basketball to one whose depth has become its strength.
“When you have nine or 10 guys sharing production from game-to-game, it makes it a little interesting,” Kruger said. “But it’s great to have depth, especially when the players handle it so well.”