Blake Griffin is the nation’s leading rebounder and fifth-leading scorer, but lately Oklahoma’s sophomore star hasn’t been padding his averages. Instead, he’s been limiting his minutes.
A pair of easy wins earlier this week allowed Griffin to get some rest, a luxury the fifth-ranked Sooners hope they’ll have again on Saturday when they try to match their best start in five years against visiting Utah.
Griffin played at least 30 minutes in each of his first seven games, and he averaged 38.6 as Oklahoma (9-0) had to sweat out five consecutive wins by 10 points or fewer from Nov. 18-Dec. 4.
But the Sooners’ last two victories have been much more comfortable, and as a result, Griffin hasn’t had to carry the team. He played 29 minutes in a 69-44 win at Tulsa on Sunday, then was on the floor for 26 minutes as Oklahoma routed Maine 78-52 on Wednesday.
After averaging 25.6 points and 17.3 rebounds in his first seven games, Griffin has averaged 20.5 points and 9.5 boards in his last two. Griffin’s concern, though, is winning, and on Saturday the Sooners can equal their best start since the 2003-04 team opened with 10 straight wins.
“Hopefully we can keep it going all season,” Griffin said after scoring 22 points and grabbing 10 rebounds against Maine. “It goes back to not taking anyone lightly. We can’t stop there. We can’t be satisfied with what we do in nine or 10 games.”
No Oklahoma starter played more than 26 minutes against the Black Bears, who the Sooners held to 15 points in the first half and 29.3 percent shooting for the game.
“I’m pleased with the win,” coach Jeff Capel said. “Our athleticism overwhelmed them a little bit. There’s not a lot of people who can match up with (Griffin) physically.”
Griffin makes Oklahoma difficult to deal with inside, but the Sooners are struggling from the perimeter. They are tied for 264th in the country in 3-point shooting, making just 30.5 percent of their attempts.
Starting guard Willie Warren, second on the team with 14.1 points per game, shoots just 25.0 percent from beyond the arc. He was 1-for-4 against Maine, and the Sooners shot 7-for-28 as a team.
Utah (5-3) is coming off a pair of tough losses after winning five of its first six games. The first was particularly alarming, as the Utes - 14th in the nation at 50.4 percent shooting from the field - shot a season-low 40.0 percent in a 72-68 loss at 2-7 Idaho State last Saturday.
Australian center Luke Nevill, Utah’s leading scorer at 18.1 points per game, was 8-of-13 for 22 points, but the rest of the team shot 14-for-42 (33.0).
Nevill also led the way with 18 points Wednesday at home against California, but the Golden Bears hit a 3-pointer with 6.1 seconds left to gave them a 72-69 win.
The 7-foot-2 Nevill should provide a stiff test for Griffin in the paint, but perhaps the Sooners will have better luck from the perimeter against Utah. The Utes allow their opponents to shoot 40.6 percent from 3-point range.
Oklahoma and Utah have split two previous meetings, with the Utes winning the most recent game 67-58 in the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 19, 2005.