Bond Between Lon Kruger, Eric Musselman Helped Spur OU-Arkansas Series in Tulsa
Lon Kruger and the Sooners may have a new hardwood rivalry brewing.
On Wednesday, Oklahoma and Arkansas announced an annual series to be played at Tulsa's BOK Center, beginning in December 2020. The two teams haven't met since the 2017-18 season, but both programs appear to be of one mind in their desire to make this series a mainstay.
Tulsa sits 122 miles from Norman and 111 from Fayetteville. It's a natural host city for a series that should draw plenty of fans from both sides.
“It’s a great series for a lot of reasons," said Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman. "Obviously, geographically, it makes a ton of sense. Playing a Big 12 team at a neutral site is great, and it’s great for our student-athletes because it’s so close. It’s great for our fans as well.”
“We’re excited about it," said Kruger to media on Wednesday afternoon. "We’ve been talking to Arkansas for two or three years about the possibility. I think it’ll be a fantastic series.”
Both Kruger and Musselman acknowledged that their past connection played a significant role in securing the series. Kruger served as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks from 2000-04, and Musselman spent two seasons as an assistant under Kruger.
“Just in talking to other people, he came highly recommended," Kruger said of the decision to hire Musselman in Atlanta. "He had that coaching blood in his background. He’s really on top of things, very organized. It was a pretty easy decision.”
Musselman eventually left after the 2001-02 season to become the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, but now his relationship with Kruger has come full-circle in the collegiate ranks.
“The idea [for the series in Tulsa] originated with Coach Kruger," Musselman said. "Forget all the basketball stuff, he’s just a really great human being. I learned so much from him. X’s and O’s, he’s phenomenal. He’s a great people person. I thought he was the best guy that I ever worked for."
Musselman said he especially respected Kruger's willingness to prioritize his staff's personal lives over basketball when necessary.
"Lon’s the first coach I’ve ever been around that put family before everything else," Musselman said. "Coach Kruger’s the easiest guy to get along with and have a relationship with.”
As for Kruger, he said that the Razorbacks' hiring of his former assistant helped catalyze the concept of a series between the programs.
“We talked about starting a series with Arkansas home-and-home," Kruger noted. "And then when Eric Musselman came in, we kicked back and forth a couple different options. Both sides felt pretty good about the final site being in Tulsa every year.”
The Sooners head coach went on to commend Musselman's character and prowess as a basketball coach, and said he's excited for their first-ever meeting as head coaches.
“[Musselman has] passion, great knowledge, relentless energy," Kruger added. "Very, very sharp.”
As it pertains to the meeting between the Razorbacks and Sooners, Musselman is particularly glad that it'll provide both teams with an opportunity to score a marquee non-conference win.
“Based on a strength of schedule standpoint, we thought it was a great game for us," he said. "I know both administrations went to Tulsa and had a meeting there, and that’s kind of how it came about. It’s a great game for us. Certainly this is a huge game for us and for Oklahoma as well. I think it’s really good for both programs.”
Musselman has made non-conference strength of schedule a particular point of emphasis since taking over as Arkansas' head coach.
“I think the number-one philosophy is, how do we get the very best non-conference schedule that we can?" Musselman went on. "We’ve done a pretty good job of trying to schedule within the best of our ability. We would expect that this game in Tulsa would have an incredibly great crowd for both teams. It’s going to be an environment that should be fun for the players.”
Kruger, whose Sooners have played at the BOK Center before, said he also views Tulsa as the perfect venue for the series.
“It’s a great arena," he said. "The people are great. Tulsa’s a great town. Just very natural with it being halfway between both campuses.”
The series is currently set for the week after the Big 12 football championship game, so with the aid of the pre-bowl season lull, Kruger believes that both teams will be well represented.
“Hopefully both crowds can come and use up all their tickets and have a great atmosphere," Kruger said. "There’s potential there for a great event.”
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