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Lon Kruger goes back to the old Big Eight Holiday Tournament but lauds Big 12

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OU's Christian James celebrates a 3-point basket with coach Lon Kruger during a victory over Kansas last week. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]
OU's Christian James celebrates a 3-point basket with coach Lon Kruger during a victory over Kansas last week. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Lonnie Kruger would hop on the bus with his Silver Lake, Kansas, teammates and coaches, make the 77-mile drive to KC, grab some lunch, darken the door of Municipal Auditorium and enjoy some holiday basketball.

That’s how far back Kruger goes with this conference’s basketball tournament. Back to the 1960s.

“Just a bunch of high school kids that are wide-eyed and excited to be here,” Kruger said. “Watching the JoJo Whites and Steve Honeycutts and Willie Murrells and all those great players from KU and K-State.”

Fifty-five years. That’s how far back Kruger goes with some version of the Kansas City tradition. The 67-year-old, who will coach the Sooners in the Big 12 Tournament against West Virginia on Wednesday, coached 1980s Kansas State in the Big Eight Tournament, and he played for K-State in the late, great Big Eight Holiday Tournament. And in the latter, he watched Murrell, the star of KSU’s 1964 Final Four team.

“Fantastic atmosphere,” Kruger said of the old holiday tournament, which from 1946-78 was staged between Christmas and New Year’s.

Fantastic atmosphere still, says Kruger, who zealously promotes the Big 12 Tournament.

“I don’t think there’s a conference tournament in the country more well-attended or the atmosphere’s better than what these players get to play before each year,” Kruger said Tuesday after OU’s practice at the Sprint Center.

Kruger talks more glowing of the current Big 12 Tournament than those grand days of the Big Eight Tournament at Kemper Arena, when seven of the eight schools brought rabid fan bases and you never knew who might win. Six schools won titles in the last seven years of the Big Eight Tournament, 1990-96.

These days, it’s been a Kansas-Iowa State strangehold; either the Jayhawks or Cyclones have won the last six Big 12 tournaments, and in the last 13 years, only KU, ISU and Missouri have won the tournament.

Now, Missouri and its masses are gone. Nebraska fans would flock to Kansas City, too, but the Cornhuskers have fled as well. OU and OSU faithful don’t invade KC like they once did; not enough hope for success to warrant the trip.

The Sooners haven’t made a Big 12 championship game since 2003. In the 12 tournaments since Kelvin Sampson left OU, the Sooners are 5-12 in the tournament, with only three semifinal appearances.

The Cowboys haven’t made a Big 12 championship game since 2005. In the 13 tournaments since Eddie Sutton left OSU, the Cowboys are 12-13, with only three semifinal appearances.

Of the eight schools that made up those old holiday tournaments, only five are in Kansas City this week. Half the field is West Virginia and Texas schools. Silver Lake would like its tournament back.

But Kruger proudly beats the drum for the Big 12, saying the Big Eight was “good at that time, I just think it’s the best right now. Don’t know specific differences. It was always a good atmosphere. But this building’s special. Sprint Center’s unbelievable.”

Few would agree with him that this is the golden era of Kansas City conference tournaments. But give Kruger credit. He carries the banner for a league he’s been following since Silver Lake days.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at btramel@oklahoman.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.

Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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