Rivalry continues for San Diego State's Fisher, Oklahoma's Kruger

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger is first to take five different programs to NCAA Tournament.
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger is first to take five different programs to NCAA Tournament.
Posted: March 22, 2013

STEVE FISHER was angry. Early in the week, a national newspaper had pegged seventh-seeded San Diego State as a team without the staying power necessary to make a run this March.

Paper in hand, Fisher then looked down a line. Right below his Aztecs were their Friday night opponents - 10th-seeded Oklahoma - who they face at the Wells Fargo Center late Friday night.

It is only fitting. In a South Region that includes sidelines giants Bill Self, Roy Williams and Billy Donovan, it is easy to forget that Fisher and his Friday counterpart, Oklahoma's Lon Kruger, possess résumés that most coaches would kill for.

They've combined for 903 wins and two Final Fours over seven Division I stops. Fisher won the NCAA title in 1989 at Michigan. Now in his second year in Norman, Kruger has become the first coach in history to take five programs to the NCAA Tournament.

But still, their teams get no respect.

"One of us is going to advance," said a grinning Fisher, presumably amused at being discounted.

Fisher and Kruger, whose careers overlapped in the Big Ten and the Mountain West, have become close over the last decade. Their teams have collided 20 times in their careers. Fisher leads the series, 14 wins to six.

But Kruger has perhaps the most memorable one. At UNLV in 2005, Kruger's Rebels stormed back to erase a 10-point deficit in 28 seconds to win in San Diego.

"He genuinely felt bad after the game," Fisher said of his friend. "Not as bad as I did, but he felt bad."

More than 8 years ago, the memory of that thriller seemed fresh for both coaches on Thursday.

"Well, I intentionally hadn't brought that up because I know how painful it was for him," said Kruger, who also coached the Atlanta Hawks from 2000-03.

It has been the most memorable game of their rivalry. Until Friday night.

While they can't seem to avoid facing each other on the hardwood, Fisher and Kruger arrive at this meeting leading vastly different programs into the national spotlight. In fact, the Aztecs and Sooners are essentially inverses of each another.

This is the fourth straight Big Dance for an Aztec program that is on the rise. Built on defense, San Diego State notched the first and second tournament win in school history in 2011 before falling to eventual champ UConn. They were a No. 2 seed then, a six last year and entered this season ranked in the top 25.

"As far as the seven seed, that is a blessing. We're starting to get respect," said star junior Jamaal Franklin, who is the only player in the country to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists and steals.

The Sooners were in a free-fall until Kruger arrived in 2011. Oklahoma, which played in four Final Fours and piled up 36 tourney wins, had a losing record each of the past 3 years. Their last NCAA bid was in 2009, when Blake Griffin was punishing rims in the Big 12.

This time, the Sooners have another star big man. While he is no Griffin, Romero Osby should give the undersized Aztecs problems. A first-team All-Big 12 selection, he is the only Sooner with NCAA Tournament experience (in 2009, then at Mississippi State).

"If Osby isn't the best player in the Big 12, I don't want to play the team that has the best player in the Big 12," Fisher said.

So here they are. These two great teachers - their wives friends, their legacies cemented - will put their combined 50 years of NCAA head-coaching experiencing to the test against one another for the 21st time.

"I'm happy he is in the tournament," Fisher said of Kruger. "I just wish we weren't playing one another in the first round."

With Franklin and Osby, they both have a star. Likely facing a second-round date with Georgetown, they both are short on expectations. Regardless of what the national pundits say, overlooking either basketball mind could prove fatal for any team in the tournament.

There are no ties in March. Someone will win on Friday, and their 36 combined tournament wins will become 37.

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