Sooners schooled

Jason King

NORMAN, Okla. – Leaning against a wall in the tunnel of the Lloyd Noble Center on Monday, an emotionally drained Jeff Capel drooped his head as he addressed the one thing that disappoints him the most.

"I hate the feeling of letting people down," the Oklahoma coach said. "I've always been like that – as a kid, as a player and now as a coach. I hate letting people down.

"I hate losing."

Admirable as the trait might be, Capel hardly needs to worry about his approval rating following Monday's 87-78 setback against Kansas – the second defeat in 48 hours for the third-ranked Sooners.

If anything, Capel's reputation has likely been enhanced by the fight his team has shown since losing national player of the year candidate Blake Griffin to a concussion during Saturday's loss at Texas. Griffin missed the entire second half against the Longhorns and didn't suit up Monday.

"Let's call it like it is," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "We caught an unbelievable break tonight with Blake being out. He impacts the game in so many ways. It certainly would've changed a lot of things."

Including the outcome.

Not to take anything away from Kansas. Last year's national champions continue to be an amazing story. Despite losing five players to the NBA draft, Self's team is 23-5 overall and 12-1 in Big 12 play.

If the Jayhawks win the conference title – and it looks like they will – Self should be the unanimous choice for national coach of the year.

Still, when Griffin is healthy, Oklahoma is the best team in the league – and maybe the country. If that wasn't the case before, it certainly will be once he returns.

In the long run, Griffin's injury could end up paying dividends for the Sooners, who have discovered a lot about themselves the past two games. After spending the last six weeks coasting to easy victories over conferences foes, Oklahoma's players are digging deeper now. They're learning how to give more.

Making free throws when you're losing isn't as easy as it is when you're winning. Diving for loose balls and getting back on defense becomes more crucial when the score is tight. So does maintaining composure.

The Sooners didn't always do that against the Jayhawks on Monday. After jumping out to a 22-8 lead – "I thought we were going to get run out of the gym," Self said – guards Willie Warren, Austin Johnson and Tony Crocker showed some immaturity by trying to channel playground ball.

Warren, in particular, abandoned all concepts of an unselfish, team approach and began treating the arena as if it was Rucker Park, attempting to use fancy head fakes and crossovers to blow by his defender instead of passing to an open teammate.

Kansas responded with a 50-18 scoring run that extended into the second half. With 10 minutes remaining the Jayhawks led 58-38.

"We got to where we stood still and played one-on-one offense," Capel said. "We can't do that."

Still, even the biggest cynic has to cut Oklahoma some slack. Everything the Sooners have done offensively the past two years has run through the 6-foot-9 Griffin. Installing a whole new scheme in the 48 hours between the Texas loss and the Kansas game would've been nearly impossible.

So the Sooners stuck with what they knew.

At times 6-foot-7 forward Taylor Griffin was guarding potential lottery pick Cole Aldrich (who stands 6-11) in the paint. Aldrich finished with 14 points and 20 rebounds, but they didn't come easy against Blake Griffin's older brother. Warren finally calmed down and began passing the ball and taking advantage of screens from his teammates.

With Johnson and Crocker still in a funk, reserves Cade Davis and Omar Leary came off the bench to combine for five 3-pointers in the final eight minutes.

The approach might have resulted in a loss – but it won the Sooners respect.

"Even when they're Blake-less," Self said, "they're still a fabulous team."

Just not fabulous enough to beat Kansas.

A 3-pointer by Warren shaved the Jayhawks' lead to 74-71 with 2:58 remaining.

But Kansas guard Sherron Collins responded with a 3 of his own and Oklahoma never really threatened again. Collins finished with 25 points.

"Two losses are disappointing," Taylor Griffin said. "They kind of exposed us a little bit and showed us what we need to work on.

"As far as the Big 12 title … things have gotten a little fuzzy. But the big picture is the NCAA tournament. We still feel like we can achieve anything we want to."

Especially when Blake Griffin is in the lineup.

The sophomore – who's expected to be the No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft – watched Monday's game from the end of the Sooners' bench. He was seen often with his face in his hands or with his palms cupped over his ears, staring forward in a daze.

After the postgame handshakes, Griffin walked off the court with his arm around Aldrich, his friend from summer basketball camps.

"You can tell something isn't right with him," said Aldrich, who exchanges text messages with Griffin about three times per week. "The main thing I told him was, 'Get well.' I would've loved to have played against him tonight."

Aldrich smiled.

"Seriously, though," he said, "even without Blake, those guys were tough."

The timetable for Griffin's return is still up in the air. Capel said Griffin must pass a "battery of tests" before doctors will clear him to play. The hope is that he'll be available for Saturday's game at Texas Tech – a game Oklahoma should win with or without Griffin.

If not, the Sooners will definitely need him back for next week's showdown at No. 10 Missouri.

"When we're at full strength we're as good as anyone in the country," Capel said. "These were just two bumps in the road for us. We'll be fine."