Change is afoot for Oklahoma basketball.
Last week Lon Kruger, Sooners head coach for the past 10 years, announced his decision to retire from coaching after a career spanning nearly 40 years.
The change at the top has swept through all levels of the program, as OU basketball begins to refashion itself in preparation for the next era.
Carlin Hartman, an assistant under Kruger at Oklahoma since 2016, is headed to UNLV to serve under another Kruger, Lon’s son Kevin, as the top assistant on the Runnin’ Rebels’ staff. The departure of Hartman illustrates a few things.
First off, no more is the steady hand that Kruger brought to the Sooner sideline. In the days since Oklahoma’s 2020-21 campaign came to a close in Indianapolis, bit part contributors Trey Phipps and Anyang Garang have entered the transfer portal, sophomore star De’Vion Harmon has entered his name into consideration for the NBA Draft, and now Hartman has been hired away to UNLV.
In the coming days, seniors Brady Manek, Austin Reaves and Alondes Williams will all have to determine if they want to return to college basketball and take advantage of their extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA, or if they want to join their fellow senior Kur Kuath in pursuing a professional career.
The sky isn’t falling by any means.
Kingfisher point guard and 2021 OU signee Bijan Cortes has reaffirmed his intentions to join the Sooners, alongside fellow signee and 4-star guard from Waxahachie, TX, C.J. Noland.
The next coach could easily come in and stabilize things, and begin building to again lift OU to new heights. But the known quantity of Kruger will no longer bring his calming presence to the Lloyd Noble Center.
Secondly, Hartman’s hiring shows the coaching search is moving along. Hartman was listed as having the joint-eighth best odds to land the OU job, per Betonline.ag. Any new head coach will have decisions to make about retaining staff members or brining in their assistants, but Hartman landing the gig at UNLV likely means he’s been ruled out for the head gig at OU
Who will fill those roles is still the big question. Maryland’s Mark Turgeon, Oregon’s Dana Altman and Oral Roberts’ Paul Mills are pegged with the best odds to land the job.
Turgeon has been at Maryland for 10 years, and has posted a record of 221-113 (66 percent) during his stay in College Park. With his previous stints at Wichita State and Texas A&M, Turgeon certainly has ties to the region, but would be a hiring which would likely fail to inspire the Sooner fanbase.
Altman has had much more success at Oregon than Turgeon has at Maryland, logging a 280-109 (72 percent) record for the Ducks. He has also fared much better in the NCAA Tournament. The Ducks have made it to the Sweet Sixteen five times since 2012 under Altman, headlined by a run to the Final Four in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Previous stops at Kansas State and Creighton give Altman experience in the Midwest, but it is uncertain if a move from Oregon to Oklahoma would be attractive at this stage in Altman’s career.
A longtime Baylor assistant, Mills finally got his head coaching shot for the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles in 2017, and is coming off a Cinderella run in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Mills guided his 15-seeded team to the Sweet Sixteen, losing to the Arkansas Razorbacks in the final seconds to end their run. The nation’s leading scorer Max Abmas flourished this season under Mills, but ORU has failed to finish better than fourth in the Summit League in Mills’ four years on the job.
Another attractive name from outside the scope of the Power 5 conferences is North Texas Mean Green head coach Grant McCasland.
McCasland has seen success at almost every stop in his relatively young career. He led Midwestern State to a 55-12 record before joining Baylor's staff as an assistant in 2011.
He then branched out again on his own, taking the Arkansas State head coaching job in 2016, where he led the Red Wolves to a 22-12 record before landing his current position at North Texas a year later.
McCasland has guided the Mean Green to a 78-51 record (60 percent) over his four years in Denton. North Texas finished first in Conference USA last year before the pandemic shut down college basketball, and then his squad upset fourth seeded Purdue 78-69 in the opening round of this year's NCAA Tournament. Also, McCasland reportedly just finalized a new contract with the Mean Green on Tuesday.
Also on the menu would be an almost fairytale homecoming story.
Houston Cougars assistant Kellen Sampson, son of former OU coach Kelvin Sampson, was listed with the same odds as Hartman. The Cougars punched their ticket to the Final Four on Monday night with a 67-61 victory over the Oregon State Beavers. Having never been a head coach, Kellen Sampson has an impressive resume as an assistant, complete with stops at Indiana, Oklahoma, Stephen F. Austin, Appalachian State and Houston.
Alongside Kellen Sampson on the Houston staff are a pair of former Sooners, Hollis Price and Quannas White. Pillars of Kelvin Sampson’s OU teams, Price and White were key in Oklahoma’s 2002 Final Four appearance and their Elite Eight berth in 2003, and by all accounts are stellar recruiters on the current Cougar staff.
Price was named to the All-Big 12 First Team in 2002 and 2003, as well as earning AP All-American Second Team honors in 2003 and Sporting News All-American Third Team plaudits in 2002.
White was named to the Big 12 All-Newcomer team in 2002, joining OU from Midland Junior College.
The appeal of bringing the trio back to Norman to try and take the program back to the next level could be appealing, as they’ve had great success in Houston even before this year’s Final Four berth.
Regardless of who is tapped to take the reins of the program, one thing is for certain. The Oklahoma Sooners will look a lot different when they take the floor in the Lloyd Noble Center next season.