Jeff Capel has Oklahoma back among the movers and shakers on the collegiate basketball scene this season, similar to the way former coaches Billy Tubbs and Kelvin Sampson had the Sooner name emblazoned on the national marquee at different points during the past 25 years.
In only his third season at the OU helm, Capel has turned a program in turmoil into a national title contender by seemingly pushing all the right buttons ” from recruiting top-level talent, to selling his system to said talent, to getting everything to click on the court.
With national player of the year candidate Blake Griffin leading the way, the Sooners have forged a 29-5 record while earning a spot in the NCAA tourney’s Sweet 16. Oklahoma is set to play Syracuse in Memphis on Friday for a chance to advance to the Elite Eight.
A trip to the Final Four is certainly within their grasp. A shot at the program’s first national title is still on the table.
The Sooners are having fun, and they are riding on the shoulders of a sophomore kid who plays like a man and does things most players can only dream about.
The 6-foot-10 Oklahoma City native seems to be carved out of granite, yet he can fly. And everyone who has seen him play knows how tough he can be. His 28 double-doubles this season are only part of his story.
No, Griffin is not Superman. That has been established on a number of levels. He bleeds when cut. He is not made of steel. But he may very well be invincible.
When he plays at the top of his game, the Sooners definitely look next to unbeatable, like this past weekend when he scored 33 points and pulled down 17 rebounds in a 73-63 win over Michigan.
Even playing with a bloody nose and elbow ” and the effects of being flipped over an opponent’s back still lingering from the previous game ” Griffin managed to find time to smile between banging heads and making buckets.
“This was so much fun. I think all our guys had a lot of fun,” he said afterward. “This is what we play for, and it’s just fun when everybody is playing well and everybody is doing their thing.”
Griffin has done his thing all season long, despite being targeted by opposing teams using tactics that have no place in college basketball, or any other sport.
MAN ON A MISSION
He’s been bumped, bruised, banged, slapped, kicked and punched. He’s taken their best (or worst or cheap) shots and forged ahead like a man on a mission.
His method of retaliation? To play harder. To score more. To beat your brains out on the boards, on defense and ultimately, the scoreboard.
That’s how Griffin plays the game. So far, his performance in the NCAA tourney has been nothing short of spectacular.
“This is where legends are made ” and Blake’s legend is growing,” Capel said.
On March 22, the Atlanta Tipoff Club announced the four finalists for the 2009 Naismith Award, presented annually to the best player in college basketball. Griffin was joined on the list by UConn big man Hasheem Thabeet, Pitt center DeJuan Blair and North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough.
While the winner will not be announced until April 5, most believe Griffin is the odds-on favorite to bring the hardware back to Norman. If that happens, it would mark the first time in history that one university has claimed both the Heisman Trophy and Naismith Award in the same school year.
OU quarterback Sam Bradford won the Heisman back in December.
For the moment, however, all Griffin and his mates are concerned about is beating Syracuse and taking the next step forward in The Big Dance. “Jay C. Upchurch