If Blake Griffin hadn’t chosen to return to Oklahoma for his sophomore year, coach Jeff Capel may be looking at a rebuilding project in just his third season in Norman.
Instead, with their preseason All-American leading the way, the 12th-ranked Sooners will start the 2008-09 campaign Friday against American as Big 12 favorites for the first time in league history.
After averaging 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds his freshman season, Griffin likely would have been a lottery pick had he entered his name in the NBA draft.
Instead, he quickly decided to return to campus, and his choice may have improved the Sooners in more ways than one. Not only will Oklahoma have one of the nation’s best power forwards in its frontcourt, but Griffin’s presence helped attract freshman guard Willie Warren, a top recruit who averaged 24.9 points and 4.7 assists as a senior in a state championship season with North Crowley High School in Fort Worth, Texas.
“I feel like I’m in a good position to have him on my team just because he’ll open up things for me,” Griffin said. “At the same time, we both help each other out. That’s a big thing is being able to learn from guys. I’ll be able to learn from him just because last year I didn’t play with a player like him.”
The duo was one of the main reasons Oklahoma was picked to win the Big 12 by the league’s coaches, filling a spot often held by star-studded Texas or defending national champion Kansas in recent seasons.
Griffin and Warren will hope to be the latest standouts in a league that has produced a bevy of top-10 draft picks the last two seasons, including Texas’ Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin and Kansas State’s Michael Beasley.
The Sooners also have experienced starters in guards Tony Crocker and Austin Johnson, and Griffin’s older brother Taylor will join him in the frontcourt, meaning there will be high hopes for Capel’s club entering what could again be Blake Griffin’s final collegiate season.
“This is what I wanted to get into,” Griffin said. “I didn’t know how quickly it was going to happen or how fast things were going to happen. … I was coming in to make my every year as good as possible. This just happened to be a year that we kind of took that extra step that really kind of pushed ourselves into the top.”
Oklahoma went 23-12 last season, but its performance in tournament play was less than stellar. The Sooners crumbled in the second half of a 77-49 loss to Texas in the Big 12 semifinals, then fell behind early in a 78-48 defeat to Louisville in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
They’ll hope to correct that problem come March, but Friday they’ll be faced with fending off an upset-minded American squad that was much happier with its postseason play last spring.
The Eagles (21-12) charged through the Patriot League tournament to earn their first-ever bid in the field of 65, then were within two points of second-seeded Tennessee with less than six minutes to play before an eventual first-round 72-57 loss.
Coach Jeff Jones’ team was picked to successfully defend its league title in the preseason poll, as American brings back its top four scorers from last season. That includes Patriot League preseason player of the year Garrison Carr, who averaged 18.4 points and ranked fourth in the nation with 135 3-pointers made in 2007-08.
Fellow sub-6-foot senior guard Derrick Mercer, who notched 12.4 points and 4.0 assists per game last season, is also back, but the Eagles will have to overcome their recent struggles against ranked opponents.
They’ve never faced Oklahoma, but they’re 0-11 against Top 25 opponents since 1996-97, with the last 10 defeats coming by double digits. They were 10-7 overall on the road last season, including 5-5 in nonconference play.