NEW YORK (AP)—Purdue coach Matt Painter and Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel bumped into each other at their hotel earlier this week, their teams on opposite sides of the bracket in the NIT Season Tip-Off.
They got to reminiscing a bit. It wasn’t long ago that they were at the Maui Invitational, the Boilermakers still trying to get on track after the departure two seasons earlier of longtime coach Gene Keady, and the Sooners growing accustomed to life without Kelvin Sampson.
Both teams lost in the opening round of that tournament—Purdue beat Oklahoma in a consolation game—their rosters bare and the challenge facing two young coaches daunting.
My, how far they’ve come.
Two years later and nearly 5,000 miles to the east, the 10th-ranked Boilermakers (5-0) and No. 11 Oklahoma (5-0) will meet for the preseason NIT championship on Friday.
“We joked how much better our teams are now. Back then we were both new programs and trying to get our guys in there,” Capel said, smiling at the memory. “I’m happy for Matt and the success he’s had at Purdue.”
Indeed, the two coaches followed similar blueprints in their rebuilding.
Painter took over a team that had won just seven games the year before he arrived. He knew there wasn’t enough talent to compete right away, and the first year bore that out: just nine wins. But Painter also knew he could sell recruits on the opportunity to play early, and players like E’Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel climbed on board.
“We gave kids a chance to come in here and be a part of the building process,” Painter said. “I think that’s how we sold a lot of our younger guys on coming here.”
Moore has developed into an inside-outside scoring threat, a sophomore guard who was second-team all-Big Ten last season. Hummel, an Indiana schoolboy star, became the first Purdue freshman ever to earn first-team all-conference honors.
It’s a team that prides itself on defense, balanced scoring, the notion of team basketball.
“We all look for each other. We don’t feel like one person is the man or one person is above one another,” Moore said. “We look for our open teammates and make a pass.”
That showed in Purdue’s win over Boston College in the tournament semifinals. The young Boilermakers built a big lead early in the second half, then watched it whittled to eight with 6 1/2 minutes left. But the balanced scoring came through again—four Purdue players reached double-figures—and the Boilermakers held on to win 71-64.
“They’re really good,” Capel said. “I got a chance to watch them earlier. They’re so well coached, they’re disciplined, they’re physical, they have such good guards.”
In short, they’re very similar to his own team.
While Purdue returns almost everybody from its best squad in a decade, one that finished second in the Big Ten and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, Oklahoma returns Blake Griffin, the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year who’s so far averaged 27.2 points and 18.8 rebounds per game.
He’s surrounded by a supporting cast that also came to Norman hoping to turn things around.
Oklahoma experienced terrific success under Sampson, but almost an entire recruiting class was lost when he left for Indiana. The Sooners were just 16-15 in Capel’s first season, but won 23 games and made the NCAA tournament a year ago.
A big reason for that turnaround is Griffin, a 6-for-10 forward who said he tested the NBA draft last season before returning for his sophomore year. Griffin had 32 points and 15 rebounds in a semifinal win over Alabama-Birmingham.
“I hate to put a name on it, I hate to say—Karl Malone was a great player, great player—but if he reminded me of anyone, I’d say Karl Malone,” UAB coach Mike Davis said, trying to describe Griffin. “He’s pretty good, good as I’ve seen.”
The semifinal participants planned to have a Thanksgiving dinner at their hotel on Thursday, where they also had a bird’s eye view—or, rather, Scooby-Doo-eye view—of the giant balloons floating down Broadway in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Then it was back to business. Boston College and UAB will play in the third-place game in a rare Friday afternoon start, followed by the Boilermakers and Sooners for the title—and perhaps a chance to solidify themselves as an early national championship contender.
Who would have thought that two years ago?
“Oklahoma, they’re definitely a good team,” said Purdue guard Keaton Grant. “There’s not another Blake Griffin in the NCAA. There’s only one of him in the United States, so it’ll definitely be a great challenge playing against them.
“We look forward to it.”