Oklahoma men's basketball seniors Sam Grooms and Andrew Fitzgerald aren't used to sitting on the bench during games.
Fitzgerald came into this season having starting 63 straight games for the Sooners, and also started 11 games as a true freshman in 2009-10.
Grooms started all 31 games for the Sooners last season in addition to starting 50 games for Chipola College in Florida before arriving in Norman.
So, the two were understandably a bit surprised when OU head coach Lon Kruger came to the pair before the season began and proposed a change.
"Coach came to me earlier this year and asked me how I felt coming off the bench," Fitzgerald said. "I felt good about it. At first it was kind of hard for me but I got used to it and I'm just trying to do my best to help this team win."
Grooms said the transition has been "interesting." A season ago, the point guard averaged six assists per game, second in the conference. Grooms also led the conference with a 2.85 assist-to-turnover ratio.
"I can't really say bad or good," Grooms said. "It's been fun because the team has been winning. I can't really complain for what I'm doing. I'm still doing the same thing just in limited minutes. I'm still setting guys up and trying to lead the team in assists the same way I did last year."
The reaction from the two pleased Kruger, who said the competitive nature of Grooms and Fitzgerald led to a bit of disappointment, but not in a negative sense.
"There was disappointment as people who like to compete and be a starter, but the disappointment was a positive because they want to play," Kruger said. "They never got their heads down or grumbled about anything. They just kept competing."
Fitzgerald said the switch to coming off the bench initially hampered his offensive abilities. Last season, Fitzgerald shot 47 percent from the field and averaged 12.1 points per game in 28 minutes per game. This season, his numbers are down to 43 percent from the field, an unusual 45.5 percent from the free throw line in 16.7 minutes a game and a mere 5.8 points per game.
"It was kind of hard for me to get into a rhythm," Fitzgerald said. "I was forcing up shots and I really couldn't get into a groove like I normally could. I'm adjusting to it well and just trying to help my teammates."
Kruger is well aware of what each player brings to the table as players, and isn't worried about the two finding their groove when they're on the court.
"Those guys are two seniors that have a lot of experience." Kruger said. "Drew is going to make shots. He hasn't consistently to this point, but that's what he does well. Sam, making plays off the dribble, that's what he does well. I think both just need to do what they do well and that will make us all better."
The move to the second unit has opened up more opportunities for both players to be better leaders, a position Grooms enjoys.
"A lot of people undervalue what a point guard does for teams and how they control the tempo and just being out there," Grooms explained. "People think it's easy, but it's not. You have to be able to know how to deal with everybody on your team as well as the coaches. That's a leader. If you can deal with this person and know you can't say what you said to this person to someone else, you became a leader just right there."
With three freshman guards—Buddy Hield, Je'lon Hornbeak and Isaiah Cousins—Grooms has plenty of pupils to teach about the many things he has learned in three years of college basketball.
"I think I did a good job trying to help them out as much as I can with the experience I have already," Grooms said. "I've been through it already. I'm explaining what's going to happen, when it's going to happen and how to deal with Coach, how to deal with environments because they haven't really experienced it yet."
Fitzgerald had the most to lose from Kruger's decision, having been in the program for three years and a part of the starting lineup for more than two of those years. However, Fitzgerald's growth in maturity over his career, as well as his strong desire to reach the NCAA tournament, something he hasn't experienced, made it easy to accept the transition.
"I just want to help my team out in any way," Fitzgerald said. "I've been here my last three years and haven't been to the NCAA tournament. My sophomore and junior years individually were great. I've proven I can play at this level and have proven a lot of people wrong. Now I just want to win and get to the tournament."
Lost in all of this is that the Sooners have inserted two freshmen in the starting lineup, put two seniors on the bench, and have improved from a season ago. That's not an indictment of Grooms and Fitzgerald, but rather a tribute to the new talent on the roster.
"There's not really a drop off from the first unit to the second unit, especially with the experience we have coming off the bench," Grooms said. "Being able to lead that group is big. Being able to talk to them and being able to talk to the first unit and lead them too is great."
It may not have been the easiest thing to do, but if the Sooners make the NCAA tournament this season, both Grooms and Fitzgerald will know the sacrifice was worth it.
"At the end of the day we're all trying to win as a team, it's not about individuals," Fitzgerald said. "I made a sacrifice. I'm still happy, I'm still proud of my teammates. I just want to win."