One of the most difficult challenges for college coaches is learning how to deal with the loss of a program changing player. Gonzaga, for instance, didn't have to deal with the loss of one player in particular, but four players who all made marks on this program. While Zag fans are confident in Mark Few's incoming talent, there is no doubt that there will be an adjustment phase. For the Oklahoma Sooners, they lost a player that not only left a mark on their program, but on the entire college basketball landscape. Blake Griffin, now the starting power forward for the Los Angeles Clippers when he returns from injury, was a human highlight reel in his two years at Oklahoma. His athletic ability and basketball skill made him the clear choice for the #1 selection in this past year's NBA Draft. The loss of Griffin will obviously be felt this season in Norman but by no means is the cupboard bare for Jeff Capel and the Sooners.
It goes without saying that one of the hottest young coaches and recruiters in the nation is Jeff Capel. Capel will be entering his fourth season at the helm and may have brought in his best recruiting class yet which is hard to say seeing as though he has recruited Blake Griffin and Willie Warren to Norman. Big 12 baketball has always been the Kansas Jayhawks stomping ground. They are without a doubt the most storied program in the conference and one of the most storied in the nation. Under Capel's guidance however, Oklahoma seems to be breeding a perennial power and, more importantly, is learning how the reload instead of rebuild. The 2009 recruiting class for the Sooners is five-deep and probably contains two immediate starters and a couple other contributors. This influx of youth should help make it a bit easier to cope with the loss of Blake Griffin. What won't make things any easier for the Sooners is the difficulty of this season's Big 12 conference. Both Kansas and Texas are favorites to make it to the final four, Iowa State has one of the top players in the country in Craig Brackins, and Oklahoma State and Baylor are programs on the rise. Oklahoma's nonconference slate is more than manageable with a few tough road games but there is no doubt that their gauntlet begins when Big 12 play starts.
Last Season: When Blake Griffin announced that he was returning for his sophomore season and passing up a sure-fire lottery pick, Sooner fans were thrilled. Griffin's return along with incoming freshman Willie Warren's arrival had Oklahoma fans talking final four. The start of the season was record setting for OU. They began the season with a blistering 25-1 record. During that time, the downed Davidson, Purdue, USC, VCU, Texas, and Baylor. Their one blemish during that stretch came against a hot shooting Arkansas Razorbacks team. By the time the 26 game streak was over, the Sooners had vaulted themselves to the #2 spot in the country and seemed to be poised to complete their destruction of the Big 12. This all changed during Oklahoma's second game with Texas in February when Blake Griffin suffered a concussion early on and OU did not have enough to take down the Longhorns in Austin. They went on to lose that game and then lose a tough game against Kansas for their first and only back-to-back losses of the season. They'd drop one more game in the regular season to Missouri before entering tournament play with four losses. In a stunning upset, Oklahoma State ousted their in-state foe in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament. Their season was enough to garner them a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament where they breezed through games against Morgan State, Michigan, and a tough Syracuse team. Oklahoma reached the Elite Eight where they took on the North Carolina Tarheels, a game after they took down Gonzaga. UNC proved to be too much for the Sooners and they were handed a 12 point loss, which wound up being UNC's toughest game of the tournament.
New Faces: Oklahoma adds five scholarship players to their roster this season and the one player who will probably become a household name by the end of the season is Tiny Gallon. His real name is Keith, and no, he his by no means Tiny. Gallon is a 6'9'', 300 pound center who had his choice of basically any school in the country when it came down to it. As you can probably see from his dimensions, Tiny is a force in the paint. The scary thing about Gallon is that I've never read a scouting report like his before. Try and imagine a larger Kevin Love. Gallon is an outstanding passer, can work well in transition, and literally plays like he's fifty pounds lighter. If he stays healthy and keeps himself in shape, he'll be a sure-fire star. Tommy Mason-Griffin is another guy that will work his way into the starting line up at some point in the season. He's a pure point guard with fantastic offensive abilities. The key with Tommy is that he is joining Willie Warren in that backcourt which bodes the question: will there be enough shots without putting two balls on the court? Andrew Fitzgerald is another big body that can contribute and Steven Pledger and Kyle Hardrick provide nice depth but their best years are down the line a bit.
Players to Watch: I've mentioned his name enough times that you should know the player to watch for Oklahoma is Willie Warren. Warren's impact on last season's team was remarkable. As a freshman he elevated a pretty, in my opinion, average backcourt to match the abilities of a guy like Blake Griffin. Austin Johnson was able to hit some shots and Tony Crocker is good for a big game here and there but Willie brought a continuity to the team that they had been missing. It will be interesting to watch him this year to see how he adjusts to being the man. Personally, I don't think he'll have any trouble being the primary player on this team. His big knock coming out of high school was that he was a head down get the basket, no pass type player but he showed that he can play team basketball. He'll probably have to score upwards of twenty points a game this season and that should not be a problem. Even though he only averaged eight minutes a game a season ago, Ryan Wright is going to play a big role this season in Norman. As the lone returning big man with experience, Wright will have to usher in a new star along his side in Tiny Gallon and continue to fill his role. Wright made big plays last season in his few minutes and is a prototypical glue guy for a team. Projected to be a starter this season, Wright will have to take on an increased leadership role and be serviceable on offense. He's got the skill but has had a pretty bumpy collegiate career after transferring from UCLA. I expect Wright to be a calming force on this team, something that will be greatly needed when you consider that they will more than likely start more underclassmen than veterans.
Concerns: The good news is that there is no more Blake Griffin. Obviously the major concern with this year's Oklahoma team is the backcourt ability. Warren, Crocker, and Mason-Griffin can all score the basketball and do outstanding things on the court. Warren's athleticism and basketball skill are unmatched by anyone on the Gonzaga roster so there is little doubt that he will get his points when he comes to Spokane. The key will be to not let anyone else go off. This will require some outstanding perimeter defense from the Bulldog guards and could be a problem for guys like Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray. All three of the Sooner guards are very athletic, quick, and physically mature so it'll be interesting to see how Mark Few attacks them.
What we are watching for: This is probably the most intriguing game on the schedule as far as matchups are concerned. In the backcourt, I'd imagine that Mark Few will put Demetri Goodson on Willie Warren. Warren is too quick for Bouldin or Gray but Meech has the defensive prowess to take on Willie. Then when you look into the frontcourt, this is another interesting matchup for Robert Sacre and co. Tiny Gallon is a remarkable talent but he is still young. Ryan Wright has experience but I give the overall talent and size edge to Gonzaga's big men. The key in the paint will be rebounding. Blake Griffin was a sensational rebounder and OU will have much to make up for with his departure. If Elias Harris and Andy Poling can win their battle with Ryan Wright and Robert Sacre can bang around with Tiny Gallon, I really like Gonzaga's odds in this game.