Spangler is part of a core of Sooners seniors who believe they're built for a Final Four run
NORMAN, Okla. — Ryan Spangler is the cool uncle. He is proudly the favorite of seven-year-old Evie Shae Spangler, who joined the world when he was a junior at Bridge Creek (Okla.) High and had an immediate connection with Ryan. She fussed when she lay on anyone else to nap but fell blissfully asleep when she curled up on her uncle's 6'8" frame. The time for snuggling is long gone, but when Evie Shae does cheer or gymnastics, uncle Ryan is in the audience when he can be. When she jumps on the trampoline in her yard, uncle Ryan sits on the ground and watches. He'd join, but he is mindful it might not withstand a 234-pound human.
When uncle Ryan slides onto the driver's seat of the family's ATV, Evie Shae buckles in and off they go. She loves to go on rides, and rides with uncle Ryan are especially great because he doesn't feel the need to sheath her in layers and layers of protective gear. Though even uncle Ryan is now reconsidering this.
"We need to put her in a suit of armor," he says. "She's already broke the same arm twice."
This is why Ryan Spangler came home in 2012. Not to test the bone density of the first-born child to older brother Robert and sister-in-law Stephanie, of course, but to be around enough to tell stories about it. He's here, sitting in an Oklahoma practice gym about 25 miles east of where he grew up, because he knew he would have missed family birthdays and ATV rides if he had stayed at Gonzaga, 1,700 miles away. So he came back after one year there. But now, unless he gets away from home again, the end to this story just won't feel right.
On Friday, Oklahoma (25–7, 12–6 Big 12) opens NCAA tournament play 20 miles up the road in Oklahoma City as the No. 2 seed in the West region against Cal State Bakersfield. What had been a charmed season, fueled by an irrepressible star guard and peaking with a No. 1 ranking in late January, has slid ever so slightly: Spangler, player of the year favorite Buddy Hield and the Sooners have lost four of their last nine games. Oklahoma remains a Final Four threat, yes, but are more vulnerable than it had appeared during a 19–2 start.
Spangler, a fifth-year senior, has played 47 college basketball games in his home state. No one more keenly understands the urgency to add two more. "I grew up rooting for the Sooners," he says. "I have a first-hand [perspective] of knowing how important it is to the fans. I've seen times of struggle, whether it's football or basketball, and I know how they get their heart broken. So we're on this top of the mountain right now, and I realize we can't have any let down and slip out of where we want to be in the end. Because I know it will break their heart."
Fulfilling the promise of this season is surely important to Hield, the team's leading scorer; it surely is important Isaiah Cousins, the Sooners' senior point guard; it surely is important to Jordan Woodard, the team's third-leading scorer and an Arcadia, Okla., native. But it just seems exceptionally important to Spangler.
Maybe that's because of the way he plays, with a bit of abandon, running the floor and throwing himself into bodies en route to 10.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game this season. Maybe it's because his family is all but fused with the place: His mom and dad attend every game and he talks Sooners football with his brothers Rustin, 33, and Robert, 31, when they're not talking hunting. Maybe it's because Jeff Capel, the predecessor to current Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, didn't offer Spangler a scholarship to play at the school he loved, and why waste a second chance when you have one?
Maybe it's because Spangler has become the Sooners' conscience, too. "He has that blue-collar approach every day," Kruger says. "At the center of his profile is rebounding, work ethic, coming at you every day ... He's a guy that other coaches would appreciate a lot, because he does a lot of things that are unheralded. There's not a stat for it. Keeps everyone on their toes."
He effectively landed at Kruger's feet, in fact, after the coach's first season in Norman in 2012. Spangler, who played 145 minutes and averaged 2.5 points and 2.4 rebounds in 22 games as a freshman at Gonzaga, wanted to be closer to home. He called to ask if Kruger had room. "Our good fortune," Kruger says. Coming off a 15–16 campaign, saddled with three years of probation and recruiting restrictions stemming from NCAA violations during Capel's tenure, and with Bulldogs coach Mark Few issuing a blessing and a recommendation, the Sooners coach was happy to oblige a local kid who was the Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year in his final season at Bridge Creek.
No one knew it then, but the program had the base necessary for a championship build. The Oklahoma staff now uses clips of Spangler playing defense to instruct others on proper communication and positioning when, for example, a big man must guard a ball screen; Spangler's defensive ratings of 91.4 and 98.7 the last two years, respectively, trailed only sophomore center Khadeem Lattin (88.3 and 93.0) among the Sooners' rotation players. "He's always there, he's always ready, he's always taking good angles, anticipating things really well," Kruger says. "Gives us that good fundamental core."
Spangler is also good for at least a couple run-out or transition chances each night, a burly power forward who is happy to beat sluggish or inattentive big men down the floor; he averages 1.277 points per transition possession, per Synergy Sports Data, ranking in the 85th percentile nationally. The way he plays—plus the abundant tattooing on his right arm and shoulder, he admits—makes him an easy target for the ire of unfriendly audiences. This year, freshman guard Christian James and freshman center Jamuni McNeace began joining Spangler as he walked from the visitors' locker room to the arena floor for pregame warm-ups.
They didn't do it as cover from the barbs of opposing fans. "They think it's funny that I get booed," Spangler says.
And it is funny—the Sooners senior says he has stifled his own laughs plenty of times—but it is also necessary.
"Somebody on every team has to play the way I play for a team to be good," Spangler says.Cooper Neil/Getty
Somebody, at least on a team with voltaic personalities like Hield and Cousins, has to ground everyone. Spangler is the youngest of three boys, and while Rustin stuck up for the baby of the family, Robert delivered standard older brother tortures like frog-punching Ryan's arm, or pinning him to the ground, or both. With everyone having grown out of that phase—and with Ryan growing to 6'8" and thereby looming four inches taller over his would-be tormentor—any Oklahoma basketball off-day becomes a mini-family reunion, a check-in on parents or siblings or any one of three nieces and a nephew. In January, there were four Spangler family birthdays in one month; that was just four good reasons to get together, by Ryan's reckoning.
During summers, if there's just a free day, the Spanglers take a boat out to Thunderbird Lake. ("It's a nasty lake, but we'll just go out there and have a good day," Ryan says.) If it's a long weekend, Lake Murray or Lake Tenkiller are the usual destinations. If they're not out on the water, the Spanglers are usually in the woods, hunting deer or duck. Ryan strongly prefers the latter, as it does not involve hours and hours of stillness and silence in a tree stand. In duck hunting, every five or 10 minutes, a fowl flies by.
"You don't have to sit there and be quiet for hours waiting for something to come," Spangler says.
All of it balances him and provides him refuge from the anxieties of basketball life. There's reliability in simplicity, though, and Spangler is indeed most comfortable when things are uncomplicated. Consider, as another example, the provenance of the name for his Yorkshire terrier, Dee Dee.
The Spanglers have never been much for little dogs; Rustin, in fact, once owned three pit bulls at the same time. But Ryan had been dating a girl for three years and, one Valentine's Day, she asked for a little dog. So Spangler bought her a little dog, a Yorkie, and his girlfriend picked the name: Deeogee. As in D-O-G, spelled as it sounds, a disastrous phonetic landslide.
A few months later, the relationship ended. Spangler kept the dog, which was fine. The name was not. He changed it immediately to Dee Dee. And while Dee Dee is a little high maintenance, especially when it comes to haircuts, Spangler doesn't mind. "She's awesome," he says. He likes to keep things simple, yes. He also has no problem putting in the extra effort for something that's worth it.
When Spangler would go to Wal-Mart early his career in Norman, strangers wouldn't say a word or give him a second look. Even as a fairly large, fairly well-known high school player now attending his home-state school, he didn't register. Seventy-one wins and three top-three finishes in the Big 12 over the past three seasons have changed that. Everyone moves fast to offer congratulations and tell Spangler and his teammates how well they're doing. Everyone hastens to note even the most fleeting of past links to the Sooners' stars of the present.
"Every time I go out, all the frat boys and everybody will tell you, 'I remember playing basketball against Ryan,'" Hield says.
Spangler got what he wanted when he returned to Oklahoma. He gets to see his family, and his family gets to see all the good stuff that came next. "I didn't ever think it would be like this," Spangler says. "I wanted to be part of turning it around and came in with Buddy and Isaiah. I knew they worked hard, I knew I worked hard. But I never realized we'd be in the position we are today."
So, starting Friday, Spangler has to crash around the floor at Chesapeake Energy Arena, just as he did down the road in the Lloyd Noble Center. He has to be the same dogged, unrelenting constant he has been for three years because he will only play college basketball twice more, at best, in his home state. And he wants to get out as badly as he had wanted to come back.