About a year and a half ago, the Oklahoma Sooners men's basketball team was in turmoil, and Steven Pledger and Andrew Fitzgerald were caught in the middle of it.
The Sooners had just come off back-to-back losing seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Recruiting was down, the fan base was restless and nonexistent, and worst of all, the Sooners were facing NCAA sanctions for violations committed in 2009.
The NCAA vacated the Sooners' 13 wins from the 2009-10 season and placed the Sooners on probation for three years. Head coach Jeff Capel was fired, and Lon Kruger was hired from UNLV. It wasn't the easiest time for either Fitzgerald or Pledger.
"I was kind of down because right after our sophomore year, that's when they announced Coach Capel was fired," Fitzgerald recalled Monday at the team's media day. "Me and Steve were really kind of confused, we didn't know what to do."
It was in that time of confusion the two players made a promise to each other and the program as a whole.
"Me and him made a promise to ourselves that we weren't going to leave OU or leave each other," Fitzgerald said. "We came into this program and we were going to stay here and finish our career here. It's been a bumpy road but it's starting to smooth out for us."
Has it ever. The Sooners are just two years removed from a 14-18 season and coming off a 15-16 record in Kruger's first year, yet many are projecting the Sooners to contend for an NCAA tournament appearance. The Sooners' depth, experience, and vast quantity of athleticism have people across the country talking.
"It's a lot of motivation for us," Fitzgerald said on making the NCAA tournament. "Our career, we haven't been to the tournament. If we keep working hard, keep listening, focus on the little things, this should be a good year for us to make it this year."
Pledger said experiencing three straight losing seasons in his first three years at OU is fueling his fire to have a big senior season.
"The experience of being a bottom-feeder," Pledger said of the biggest impact from the Capel era. "That's not something I've been used to, so being able to endure that and stay here with Fitz to see that, and know what it actually takes to win is good."
Last season's 15-16 record was deceptive for Oklahoma. The Sooners had an opportunity to win seven games late that slipped away from them. Pledger said being competitive after two straight years of not being so has helped the team coming into this season.
"It was definitely good for our confidence," Pledger said. "We just have to sustain, we have to make the little plays. Doing that more consistently is the best thing for us."
Fitzgerald said the overall feel of the program is much more team oriented than it was in his first two seasons in Norman.
"When I was first here, my freshman and sophomore year, it was more individuals, but since Coach Kruger came, it's more of a team concept," Fitzgerald said. "It's five guys out there playing for each other, and everybody that comes off the bench; we all play for each other. I think that's great for us. It's a great atmosphere to be around."
Kruger insists he hasn't done a major overhaul of the program since he arrived at OU. Instead, he has simply raised the expectations players have for themselves and instilled a huge level of confidence in each individual player.
"We want players to expect a lot of themselves," Kruger said. "We're certainly going to expect a lot of them in terms of habits to give themselves a chance to be as good as possible every day, in terms of respect for others on the team or others around campus, other around the community. Not that it was a change from before; this is just what standard fare is for us."
Pledger and Fitzgerald know what it's like when team and high individual expectations are not the standard fare around Norman. They experienced that their first two seasons. But because of the promise they made to themselves and the program that brought them across the country, they endured.
Now the two are poised for big senior seasons, and if things go well for the Sooners, it could lead to their first postseason appearance in their careers.