Coaches vs. Cancer is a cause for Oklahoma-Minnesota game

Both teams play on Saturday at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls

Coach Richard Pitino coaching in the Sanford Pentagon

Beyond being a Big 10 vs. Big 12 matchup of prominent programs, the Minnesota vs. Oklahoma basketball game at the Pentagon will draw attention to Coaches vs. Cancer, a charitable effort that includes staunch support from Gopher and Sooner basketball coaches, as well Sanford Health.

Both Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger and Minnesota coach Richard Pitino have a history of devoting time, energy and resources to this prominent national charity, which works in conjunction with the American Cancer Society. The Nov. 9 matchup in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is just the most recent example.

Tickets are still available for the 7 p.m. game, which will bring together leaders from the ACS and Sanford Health to further discuss common goals. The fight against cancer will be highlighted throughout the contest, which is airing on the Big Ten Network, with some cancer survivors getting special behind-the-scenes access. Included will be a moment of silence and opportunities to contribute to the ACS.

Kruger leads Coaches vs. Cancer

Kruger, in his ninth year at Oklahoma, enters his 34th season as a Division I college head coach with 639 career wins. His commitment to charitable causes, and in particular Coaches vs. Cancer, is one of the defining characteristics of his lifetime affiliation with the sport.

He is now Coaches vs. Cancer national chairman, representing the organization in its collaboration with the ACS and the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

“No. 1, this is a signature charity for the National Association of Basketball Coaches,” Kruger said. “A lot of coaches are involved and a lot of them are involved in different ways. Everyone has been touched by cancer, it’s a nasty disease. Coaches do a good job of using their platforms and increasing awareness in raising dollars.”

At the center of Kruger’s work with the organization is the American Cancer Society’s Coaches vs. Cancer Las Vegas Golf Classic, where Sanford Health became involved as a presenting sponsor in 2017.

The event, which Kruger began during his time as coach at UNLV, announced this spring it eclipsed the $1 million mark in net money raised at the 12th Annual Classic alone. That put the event over the $5 million mark in total net money donated to the ACS since Kruger got it going in 2008.

Coaches vs. Cancer support

“When Sanford got involved it changed the depth of the impact,” Kruger said. “We went from raising $700,000-800,000 a year to well over a million to ACS and the fight against cancer. Kelby Krabbenhoft and Sanford are huge players in the battle. They’re much appreciated by everyone.”

Pitino is part of an annual Coaches vs. Cancer Tipoff Dinner in Minneapolis that raised $124,000 in 2018 alone. Proceeds benefit the Richard M. Schulze Family Hope Lodge adjacent to the U’s campus. Heading into its fifth year as an annual event, it had raised more than $380,000 going into 2019.

“It’s such a tremendous opportunity for me and our team to step away from basketball for one night and connect with our community for a great cause,” Pitino said. “I am thankful for our generous donors, and am excited to see what we can do in the future.”

Grateful to Sanford

In this case, by bringing the Sooners to Sioux Falls, Kruger is returning a favor of sorts. But more so it represents a continued commitment to the cause of Coaches vs. Cancer.

“We’re honored to be here because of all the work Sanford does in the fight against cancer and other health-related issues,” Kruger said. “They’re on the cutting edge of so many things going forward. We’re really looking forward to the opportunity to come to the Pentagon and partner-up with Sanford for that game.”

The contest will be Minnesota’s third trip and Oklahoma’s first to the Pentagon since the arena opened in 2013. The complex hosted 25 NCAA Division I men’s college basketball games going into the 2019-2020 season.

The matchup

This will be the ninth meeting between Minnesota and Oklahoma, but the first since 2004. A year ago, the Gophers went 22-14 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament before falling to eventual Final Four participant Michigan State. The Sooners were 20-14 and also advanced to the second round of the NCAAs, losing to eventual national champion Virginia.

Oklahoma returns three starters from last year in Jamal Bieniemi, Kristian Doolittle and Brady Manek but will likely have several new names figuring prominently as the year goes on. Included in that group is De’Vion Harmon, one of the nation’s top-rated high school guards a year ago.

“We’ve got an exciting group,” Kruger said. “We’ve got a lot of new guys and a lot of young guys. They’ve worked really hard and we’re intrigued by the versatility we have as a group. We have a lot of interchangeable parts. We can play big and play small — we know they’ll play hard.”

Similarly, Minnesota, while hit hard by the departure of top players Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey, return double-digit scorers Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur.

“We got a lot of new guys,” Pitino said at Big 10 Media Day. “It’s an opportunity to re-introduce ourselves a little bit and start over. We lost a lot but that doesn’t mean we have to take a step back. We’ve got to get our guys to understand that. We’re excited about this group. They’re good guys. They work hard. They represent themselves the right way.”

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