Sooners lost season stings

Jason King


Willie Warren's play has been a disappointment.
(AP Photo)

Earlier this week – less than 24 hours before their game against top-ranked Kansas – the Oklahoma basketball team was forced to evacuate their Lawrence hotel because of a fire alarm that went off just before midnight.

Turns out something in the laundry room had set off the siren, Still, at the time, Sooners coach Jeff Capel wasn't sure it wasn't a prank.

"Initially I thought it was a KU fan or something like that," Capel said. "But I don't know if we're good enough to where they'd [bother to] do that to us."

Oklahoma touts one of the nation's top recruiting classes and a preseason All-American in Willie Warren yet, strangely, Capel is right.

No one really views the Sooners as a threat.

At 13-14 overall and 4-9 in Big 12 play, the Sooners have been one of the biggest disappointments in college basketball. One season after reaching the Elite Eight, Oklahoma is in serious danger of missing the postseason altogether.

"We've got guys playing for something other than Oklahoma," Capel said after Monday's 81-68 loss to Kansas. "We just haven't become a team."

No one expected Oklahoma to contend for a Big 12 championship after losing National Player of the Year Blake Griffin and his brother, Taylor, to the NBA draft. Still, the feeling was that Oklahoma would have a formidable squad.

The Sooners were ranked among the nation's Top 20 in virtually every preseason poll. With Warren leading a team that included veteran Tony Crocker and newcomers such as McDonald's All-American Tiny Gallon and electric freshman point guard Tommy Mason-Griffin, Oklahoma seemed like a lock to return to the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive year.

"Unfortunately," Capel said, "my vision for this team hasn't turned into a reality."

The problems began during the summer when Capel kicked projected starting forward Juan Pattillo off the team. Then the season began on a frustrating note when the Sooners dropped their third game at Virginia Commonwealth, Capel's former school.

It only got worse from there as Oklahoma lost its next two games against San Diego and Houston. Oklahoma opened the conference season with a 31-point setback at Baylor and then became the first and only Big 12 school to lose to Nebraska.

Capel said the on-court bickering, lack of effort and overall selfishness became ridiculous at times. He said some of the Sooners may have been trying to impress NBA scouts or attempting to elevate their statistics. He's just not sure.

"It could be a lot of different things," he said. "I read something [coach] Flip Saunders said with the Washington Wizards. Any time you've got guys complaining about having plays called for them, you know you've got problems. That's something we've had."

The Sooners finally received a dose of good fortune when they beat Texas on Feb. 6, but later that night, freshmen Steven Pledger and Andrew Fitzgerald were caught trying to shoplift from a local department store.

All of it has been enough to drive Capel batty.

"Something I've always prided myself in is being able to push guys and motivate them to get better," he said. "I just don't feel like I've been able to do that with this group. That's been the most frustrating thing, because I feel like that's the main reason that we've lost."

Even more aggravating for Capel is remembering just how good the Sooners were a year ago. With the Griffin brothers leading the way, Oklahoma climbed to No. 1 in the national rankings. Discipline issues were rarely a problem and neither was effort – mainly because of the example set by his departed stars.

"We don't have a player like that on this team, a guy that sets an example," Capel said. "That's unfortunate. I thought some of our returning guys, having been around Blake and around Taylor, I thought some of that would've rubbed off. But it hasn't to the level that I hoped it would.

"It really all boils down to hard work. When I recruited Blake, he told me what he wanted to achieve, and my message to him was, 'Dream bigger that that.' He said he wanted to be a pro. I said, 'Why not become the No. 1 pick? ' He came to understand the things that it took to attain that. He worked like he'd never worked before. That's what we've got to get these guys to do."

Warren is the main player who has underachieved. The guard who was dubbed "Preseason National Player of the Year" by one publication is averaging 16.3 points, but he's shooting just 43 percent from the field and only 30 percent from 3-point range.

Even worse, Warren has failed to take on the leadership role that Capel hoped he would embrace.

Capel said he believes Warren "got frustrated" after Oklahoma suffered three straight losses early in the season.

"He probably hadn't lost three straight games since his junior year of high school," Capel said. "I told him before the season, 'When you're the guy, it's a gift and a curse.' A lot of great things come with that, but a lot of responsibility and a lot of blame come with that role, too."

Warren has also missed six games because of injuries and a recent bout with mononucleosis. He did not play against Kansas on Monday. Despite his mediocre season, Warren, a sophomore, is still projected as a Top 20 pick in this summer's NBA draft.

"People fail to remember that he just turned 20," Capel said. "This is a different level of scrutiny. It's a different level as far as being under a microscope. He's never experienced something like this before."

Neither has Capel. Every coach has his down moments but, for the first time in his career, the former Duke star is dealing with failure on an almost weekly basis. At times he said he can't help but wonder if there are things he should be doing differently.

"A lot of [the blame] should be on me and my staff," Capel said. "We've got to do a better job of getting guys to buy in. Again, that's been the most frustrating thing with me, because that's been my strength – the relationships I have and the way I can help a guy understand what he needs to do to work to get better. But we really haven't been able to get the message through.

"Sometimes as a coach and a leader, you wonder, 'Gosh, what more do I have to do to get the message through, other than get rid of a kid?'"

Capel did that during the offseason with Pattillo and he hinted earlier this week that he won't be afraid to do it again.

"Scholarships are not guaranteed for next year," he said. "There will be some decisions that will be made. So if guys aren't motivated, they'll make that decision a little bit easier."

Asked after Monday's game if he was trying to send a message to his players, Capel said: "It's just reality. If guys can't do what they're supposed to do on and off the floor – if they're not willing to compete and work and do the things necessary to get better – then this probably isn't the place for them."


Kemba Walker and the Huskies are rolling.
(AP Photo)

Kemba Walker – Connecticut's standout sophomore is one of the key reasons the Huskies are back in the NCAA tournament hunt. Walker is averaging 22 points during a three-game win streak that includes victories over Villanova and West Virginia. He is shooting nearly 50 percent (14-of-29) from the field during that span and has made seven of his 15 3-point attempts.

Florida – Billy Donovan's squad appears headed back to the NCAA tournament following Tuesday's victory over No. 19 Tennessee. Florida has won five of its last six SEC games and is 20-8 overall and 9-4 in league play. The Gators won the NCAA title in 2006 and 2007 but have not returned to the tournament since.

Tyshawn Taylor and Xavier Henry – The Kansas players have stepped up their game big-time during the last few weeks to make the No. 1 Jayhawks look that much more lethal. Henry is averaging 18 points over his last five games. Taylor has averaged 14 points and 3.5 assists since regaining his starting spot two games ago.

Landry Fields – The Stanford senior is averaging 22.2 points for a team that has won three of its last four games. Fields has scored 20 or more points in 18 of Stanford's 27 games and has surpassed the 30-point barrier three times. At 13-14, Stanford still has a chance to reach the NIT, as all three of its final regular-season games are at home.

Mark Turgeon – Texas A&M's head coach probably won't win Big 12 Coach of the Year, but it's still tough not to be impressed with the job he's done in the wake of the season-ending injury to second-leading scorer Derrick Roland. The No. 22 Aggies are 9-4 since Roland suffered that gruesome injury at Washington on Dec. 22, and three of those losses were against Top 15 teams.


Villanova – It's certainly no time to panic, but Villanova will enter Wednesday's game against South Florida having lost two in a row and three of its last five Big East games. The Wildcats have all but lost their chance at a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament – and things won't get any easier from here, as Syracuse and West Virginia are still on the schedule.

Luke Harangody, All-American – After appearing on almost everyone's preseason All-American squad, Harangody's chances of making the real team appear slim thanks to a back injury that will force him to miss his third straight game Wednesday against Pittsburgh. Harangody is averaging 10 rebounds and a career-high 24.1 points, but some voters may be inclined to leave him off their ballot because of Notre Dame's struggles and inability to win big games.

Virginia – The Cavaliers' run as one of the ACC's hottest teams didn't last long. Tuesday's loss to league bottom-feeder Miami marked the sixth straight defeat for Tony Bennett's squad, and things will only get tougher from here. Virginia plays host to Duke on Sunday before traveling to Boston College on March 3. Virginia's regular-season finale is a home showdown against Maryland.

Ernie Kent – Of all the teams in the woeful Pac-10, none has been as bad as Oregon. That could mean the end for Ducks coach Ernie Kent, who hasn't exactly received a vote of confidence from athletic director Mike Bellotti. Kent had a nice run at Oregon, but it's time for a change.

Dayton – The Flyers have been one of the more disappointing non-power conference teams – mainly because their expectations were so high. Sunday's loss to Duquesne didn't exactly help the NCAA tournament hopes of a squad that has lost to Saint Louis, Rhode Island and St. John's during the last month.


Who are the leading candidates to win the MVP award in each of the Big Six conferences?

My guess is that Duke's Jon Scheyer in the ACC, Ohio State's Evan Turner in the Big Ten and Kentucky's John Wall in the SEC will win the award with ease. Scottie Reynolds (Villanova) and Wesley Johnson (Syracuse) will battle it out in the Big East. The Big 12 will come down to three players: Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich of Kansas and James Anderson of Oklahoma State. The Pac-10 race is the toughest to predict, with Landry Fields (Stanford), Quincy Pondexter (Washington), Jerome Randle (Cal) and Klay Thompson (Washington State) all likely in the mix.

Could eight Big East teams make the NCAA tournament?

Yes. Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Georgetown look like locks, and Louisville appears to be in good shape. I think Marquette will get in with 10 conference wins (the Golden Eagles are 8-6 with four games left) and Connecticut (7-8) would probably get there with nine league victories. The Huskies' stock is solid with wins over Texas, West Virginia and Villanova. Jim Calhoun's squad plays host to Louisville in its home finale Sunday before ending the regular season with back-to-back road games against Notre Dame and South Florida.

Kansas has clinched a share of its sixth straight Big 12 title. How many times has that been done?

Only two other power conference teams in the past 50 years have managed to win six or more regular-season league championships in a row. UCLA won 13 straight conference titles from 1967-79, and Kentucky won six in a row from 1968-73.


Dogus Balbay is done for Texas.
(AP Photo)

Texas guard Dogus Balbay is out of for the rest of the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Look for freshman J’Covan Brown to get more playing time in Balbay's absence. … Forward Tyler Zeller has returned to the North Carolina lineup for the first time in nearly a month. … Philadelphia University coach Herb Magee won his 903rd game Tuesday to surpass Bob Knight (902) as the NCAA's all-time wins leader. … Northern State coach Don Meyer, 65, announced this week that he will retire at the end of the season. Meyer has 922 career victories at the NAIA and Division II level. In 2008 Meyer was injured in a car accident that led to the amputation of his left leg below the knee. … UCLA freshman Reeves Nelson has undergone laser surgery to repair a slight tear in his left retina. It is unknown whether he will play this weekend. … Bob Huggins' ejection in West Virginia's loss to Connecticut was the fourth of his career. … Marc Boehm, the associate athletics director in charge of men's and women's basketball at Nebraska, has said that men's coach Doc Sadler will return next season. – even if the Cornhuskers fail to win another game. Nebraska is 13-14 overall and 1-11 in Big 12 play. In other Nebraska news, Sadler has suspended Eshaunte Jones and Quincy Hankins-Cole for Wednesday's game at Iowa State. The twosome averages a combined 9.9 points … No. 25 Northern Iowa was stunned by Evansville on Tuesday.


Can Devan Downey and the Gamecocks again shoot down Kentucky.
(AP Photo)


South Carolina at Kentucky – The Gamecocks are the only team to beat Kentucky.


Butler at Valparaiso – Valpo is 15-15 – but 9-2 at home. Butler, meanwhile, has won a national-best 17 straight games.


Kentucky at Tennessee – Don't be surprised if the Vols are the last team to challenge Kentucky before the NCAA tournament.

Texas at Texas A&M – Nothing like a victory against an archrival to boost your confidence before the postseason.

New Mexico at BYU – The Lobos haven't lost since early January.

Missouri at Kansas State – The Tigers are one of just three Big 12 teams to beat the Wildcats.

Villanova at Syracuse – The Orange are getting closer and closer to wrapping up the Big East title.


Richmond at Xavier – Two of the Atlantic 10’s best go at it in Cincinnati.

Michigan State at Purdue – The Spartans will try to spoil Purdue's Big Ten title hopes and keep their own alive.


Georgetown at West Virginia – The Mountaineers have lost three of their last five games.


Illinois at Ohio State – Evan Turner's National Player of the Year campaign continues.


Scott Garson, UCLA – Garson is in his sixth season on the Bruins' staff and fourth as an assistant under Ben Howland. Prior to his arrival in Westwood, Garson spent five seasons working under Rick Majerus at Utah and one year as an administrative assistant and video coordinator at Pepperdine under former Waves coach Lorenzo Romar, who is now the head coach at Washington. Garson grew up in Tarzana, Calif., and is a 1999 graduate of UC-Santa Barbara.

KOTC: You've worked under head coaches such as Lorenzo Romar, Rick Majerus and Ben Howland. What's something you took from each one?



GARSON: With Lorenzo at Pepperdine, that was my first job as a volunteer assistant. That was my first chance to find out what this business was all about. I learned a lot by listening to how Lorenzo talked to his players and by watching his relationships with the players. He's got a lot of great stories. He goes way back. Obviously he played high school ball in Southern California and then went on to the NBA. He's got a great way about him. He's a great storyteller, a lot of fun to be around. The kids enjoyed playing hard for him for that reason. He also surrounded himself with a really good staff. That's something I learned right away: Your staff is really important. Randy Bennett, who is now the head coach at St. Mary's, was the top assistant. I consider [Romar] one of my mentors along with Coach Majerus and Coach Howland.

Coach Majerus is the ultimate tactician when it comes to basketball and practice. Every single detail is important. I learned more in one day with Coach Majerus than I've learned in 23 years of basketball. He's a genius. He sees so much. He sees all 10 players and what they're doing offensively and defensively on every single possession. His attention to detail and the respect that he gets from his players … at the end of the day, he has mastered every aspect of this game. Guards, big men, offense, defense. I learned from him that every single detail is important. You can't look anything over. As a fan you always watch the ball. From Coach Majerus, I learned to appreciate what's going on away from the ball. What are the other eight players on the court doing? He's not married. He doesn't have any kids. He has two priorities in his life, and that's basketball and making sure he's got a good meal. Working for him was 24-7. You're constantly thinking about your team and how you can improve. It was like going to medical school for a basketball coach.

Coach Howland is very similar to Coach Majerus. From Coach Howland, I'm learning how to run a program. It's not just on the court that counts. It's dealing with the boosters. It's dealing with the administration and your relationship with your athletic director and assistant coaches. Your relationship with your players' parents. All of it matters. He understands the entire game. That's why he's been able to rebuild three different programs and turn them into gold. He doesn't leave anything untouched in the program. Everything that goes on with the program gets cross-checked by him before it happens, whether it's stuff with the media, academic stuff … he wants to know everything.

KOTC: Before you were an assistant coach you were UCLA's video coordinator. A lot of people don't realize what all that entails. How tough of a job is it?

GARSON: You're the right-hand guy for the head coach at every practice and every game. You're watching film and you're breaking down the game. You're learning the ins and outs of everything when it comes to basketball. To me it's the greatest way to prepare you to become a coach. Nothing takes the place of being a coach on the floor, but it's a position that really helped me understand the nuances and wrinkles of the game, because along with our own team, you study the opponent constantly. I was forced to learn and pay attention to the philosophies of guys like Herb Sendek of Arizona State and Ernie Kent at Oregon. It gave me a lot of ideas that I might use someday if I ever become a head coach. It's also a part of players' development now, because video is used more than ever before. Players watch a lot of tape of themselves. We break down every practice and every game. It takes a lot of time. You're also watching tapes of a lot of high school games. So many tapes come in that the assistant coaches don't have time to watch them all, so they tell the video coordinator, 'Watch this tape and tell me if this kid's any good. If he is then I'll watch it.' You get a taste of it all.

KOTC: Any funny or off-the-wall stories about things you've done to try to land a recruit?

GARSON: I went to Cameroon in Africa once to recruit. We had two players from Cameroon on our team in Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya. I went back there to see if there were some more players over there. When I got there, some friends of Alfred and Luc greeted me. It was quite a culture shock. When I went over there it was amazing to see how excited people were about UCLA. We had been to two straight Final Fours at that point, and Alfred and Luc were like heroes over there. Everyone had watched the Final Fours and was a UCLA fan. I was treated like an absolute king. It was amazing how excited people were. When I got back I was in more culture shock then when I got there. I got back on a game day and went into Pauley Pavilion, and one of our players came up to me and said, 'Have you talked to adidas? We need to try to get that new shoe they've got out.' I said, 'You're talking to the wrong guy right now. I just came from somewhere where they'd be happy if they had a pair of shoes.' It put everything in perspective for me.

KOTC: Is there one player you've worked with that you're particularly proud of?

GARSON: The guy that I love the most is Arron Afflalo. Arron was all about winning. When he came to UCLA he understood that hard work was how you get better. He was a leader on our team and yet he wasn't very vocal. It's not about talking trash or what you have tattooed on your arm. It's about going out and looking at the scoreboard and saying, 'I helped my team win.' He understood that, and that's why he's having so much success in the NBA. The Denver Nuggets love him. Arron loved to do the dirty work. Arron loved to set a good screen. Arron loved to defend his man. He wasn't the most talented or the most athletic player we've had at UCLA, but he has the most heart of anyone we've ever coached.

KOTC: How nice has it been for you to be able to coach in the part of the country where you grew up?

GARSON: I've been blessed. My dad is a graduate of UCLA. I grew up knowing about and cheering for UCLA and coming to UCLA games. I was a junkie when I was in high school. I'd come down to some of Coach [Jim] Harrick's practices so I could see how hard they worked. It's not often in this business when you get to be around your family. It's nice to know that I can see my parents and brother from time to time. They love to come to games and support me. The greatest thing for me is the opportunity to get to know Coach Wooden better. I came to his camps when I was growing up. Last year I had breakfast with him and I brought him some pictures of me when I was a little kid, sitting on his lap.

KOTC: What do you do in your free time when you're not coaching or recruiting?

GARSON: One thing I love is watching the show "24." My girlfriend and I are addicted. We're on Season Four right now. In the offseason I'm looking forward to getting all the way through Season Seven so we can catch up. That and "Family Guy" are my two favorite shows. I'm also a big baseball fan. When I get time during the summer, I get to Dodger Stadium whenever I can. I have a hard time deciphering which is my favorite sport between basketball and baseball. I tend to say baseball. If I had a choice between attending a pro baseball game or a pro basketball game, I'd lean toward baseball. I pitched for a year in college and my brother pitched at Michigan. There's nothing better to me than a 2-1 ballgame that was well-pitched and well-played without a lot of errors. All the things that people who aren't baseball fans are bored by are the things that I love.


The barbecue is dreamy at Dreamland.
(Jason King/Yahoo! Sports)

As the regular season winds down, I thought I'd give you a rundown of my favorite barbecue spots.

Oklahoma Joe's, Kansas City – Funny that the best restaurant in the nation's BBQ capital is named after a foreign state, but the customers don't seem to mind at Oklahoma Joe's, where the generous helpings of pork ribs and chicken are complemented by the best French fries you'll find at any food establishment. Arthur Bryant's, Gates and Jack's Stack will always have a special place in my heart, but Oklahoma Joe's is the new king of Kansas City barbecue.

Dreamland BBQ, Alabama – I can't imagine that there are better ribs in America than the ones served at Dreamland. They're not fall-off-the-bone style – but that's a good thing. I'm a huge fan of the sauce, too. I ordered a side of wings on my last visit. They were pretty run-of-the-mill. Next time it'll be all cue. There are various locations throughout the state.

Jim Neely's World Famous Interstate Bar-B-Que, Memphis – Whether you’re ordering from the location at the Memphis airport, the original location on Third Street or one of the two Neely's Bar-B-Que restaurants in the city, you're sure to leave with a full stomach and a need for a nap. The pulled pork sandwich is a meal in itself, but make sure you get a side of barbeque spaghetti or a small order of the monster-sized wings. With Neely's and Gus' Fried Chicken both in the rotation, Memphis is one of my favorite food towns in America.

Baby Back Shak, Dallas – Search the reviews on this place and you'll find five-star comments across the board. The pork ribs are the restaurant’s calling card – trust me, a half-slab is plenty – but, trust me, don't sleep on the hot links, the wings or the green beans. Boudin (a Cajun delicacy containing sausage and rice) is also a favorite.

Mac's Speed Shop, Charlotte – On my first and only visit to Mac's, I ordered a combo platter called, "A Little Bit of It All." It was the best $16 I ever spent. Not only did my plate contain a huge helping of pulled pork along with ribs, chicken and brisket, but it was all good – and so were the wings and fried pickles we had as an appetizer. This was the best barbecue I've had in the Carolinas although, admittedly, I'm rather inexperienced in that part of the country.