Although Oklahoma finished second in the Big 12 regular-season standings, it’s considered a favorite for its first tournament title since 2003.
Blake Griffin’s performance in his team’s season finale might have a lot to do with that.
Griffin and the No. 6 Sooners open the Big 12 tournament on Thursday against Oklahoma State in the first meeting between the in-state rivals in Oklahoma City since 1942.
Oklahoma (27-4) finished the regular season winning two of three but it wasn’t enough to catch Kansas, which finished one game ahead of the Sooners in the conference.
Oklahoma, though, has good reason to be confident about its prospects in the tournament. The Sooners closed the regular season with an 82-78 win over Oklahoma State (21-10) on Saturday, led by 33 points and 14 rebounds from Griffin.
Griffin, the unanimous Big 12 player of the year, suffered a concussion Feb. 21 in a loss to Texas and also missed the Sooners’ loss to the Jayhawks two nights later. Griffin has averaged 23.0 points and 17.7 rebounds since returning and put together one of his best shooting performances of the season his last time out, going 12-of-15 from the floor.
Griffin finished the season with a Big 12-record 425 rebounds, and also had a school-record 25 double-doubles.
“Blake Griffin, I just told my staff, may be the best player I’ve ever gone against as a player or a coach,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said.
Oklahoma is looking to win its first Big 12 tournament title since 2003 when it advanced to the regional finals in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s not that we beat OSU and all our problems are solved,” Griffin said following his team’s recent win over the Cowboys. “We’ve still got to keep working. We’ve still got to keep getting better every game.”
The Sooners struggled on defense late in the season, allowing their last five opponents to average 74.8 points after giving up 67.7 in the first 11 conference games. They’ll face the Big 12’s highest scoring team on Thursday as the Cowboys try to snap a five-game losing streak in the Bedlam series.
“Bedlam is a huge game, I take it seriously,” said guard Obi Muonelo following Oklahoma State’s 81-67 win over Iowa State on Wednesday in the opening round of the conference tournament. “They’ve beaten us twice this year and that bothers me.”
Muonelo scored 18 points in the win - his highest total in a month. The junior lost his starting spot in mid-February and finished the regular season averaging 4.0 points in his team’s final five games. He scored two points in 11 minutes against the Sooners last week.
“There’s no question he’s probably been a little disappointed,” Ford said of Muonelo losing playing time. “We have made statements over and over again in our staff meetings … We can’t win without Obi.”
Oklahoma State is trying to improve its chances at securing a spot in the NCAA tournament after a late-season surge. The Cowboys have won seven of their last eight and are averaging 82.2 points this season - fourth-highest in the nation. Five players scored in double figures Wednesday.
The Sooners have won five straight and eight of the last 10 meetings. This is the third time in the series - which spans 102 years - that the two will play in Oklahoma City and first time since 1942. Norman is about 30 minutes outside the state’s capital while Stillwater is just over an hour.