Why Oklahoma Is a Final Four Contender

Andrew KahnCorrespondent IJanuary 27, 2009

We should stop talking about them as a one-man show.

End the criticisms of their weak backcourt.

There shouldn't be any doubt anymore: The Oklahoma Sooners are a legitimate Final Four contender.

This isn't coming from a guy who suddenly came to this realization last night. The dateline speaks for itself. I've been a believer. In fact, I had already moved past the question of "Can the Sooners reach Detroit?" and started asking "What could possibly hold this team back?"

But enough with the flashbacks to the earlier parts of the season. Did you see last night's Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game? For the second year in a row, the Sooners went into Stillwater, into bedlam, and came out victorious, winning 89-81.

To say Oklahoma had a target on its back would be a gross understatement. Those Crimson jerseys had a huge "No. 4 in the country" sticker on one side and a "5-0 in the Big XII" on the other. And Blake Griffin must have had a "Kick Me" sign on his back, too, because the Cowboys were determined to rattle the Sooners' superstar last night.

It didn't work.

Griffin, as he has all season, kept his composure despite taking shots to the head and chest—some after the whistle—and shot 9-for-11 from the field and 8-for-13 from the foul line en route to a typical 26-point performance. Oh and he grabbed more rebounds himself (19) than the entire Oklahoma State team (16).

But Blake Griffin has been a monster since he put on an Oklahoma uniform. The bigger story last night was Austin Johnson's nationally televised coming-out party. The senior point guard scored a career-high 22 points, connecting on five threes, including one from the icy parking lot to essentially, well, ice the game.

As I noted in a previous article, Oklahoma was 14-1 last year, including an 8-0 record in conference, when Johnson scored in double digits. The Sooners are 20-1 this season whether Johnson scores 22, two, or somewhere in between, but it's worth noting he scored only two points in Oklahoma's only loss.

Fortunately for coach Jeff Capel, Johnson's importance to the team's success does not seem to bother the mohawked floor leader, as he's quickly becoming a big-game player. Johnson is averaging 8.8 points per game, but that number is over 14 in Big XII play.

He also scored 11, 17, and 14 in key early-season contests against Purdue, Southern Cal, and Utah, respectively.

With all the attention Griffin gets, it's crucial that the other Sooners on the court are capable of knocking down open shots. Johnson's shooting form won't make it on any instructional videos, but he's getting more rotation on his jumper than he was earlier in the season and, most importantly, his shots are falling.

He's currently converting 44 percent of his field-goal attempts and 36 percent from downtown—not bad to go along with his 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Johnson hasn't been the only bright spot in the Oklahoma backcourt. Freshman Willie Warren has developed quicker than expected—or right on schedule, depending on whom you ask—and is a threat to drop 30 (as he's already done twice this season) if defenses focus too much on Griffin.

Warren is shooting over 50 percent and averaging nearly 15 a game. It's scary to think he's only going to get better.

While guys like Taylor Griffin and Tony Crocker continue to play pivotal roles for the Sooners, a new contributor emerged last night. Juan Pattillo is a 6'6", 218-pound junior college transfer whom Capel considered redshirting before putting him on the floor for the first time two weeks ago against Texas.

Pattillo played 14 minutes against Baylor last Saturday and scored nine. Last night, he scored 12 in 23 minutes of action. His timing seemed a bit off on a few plays, as he dropped passes you'd expect him to handle, but that didn't stop him from silencing the crowd with a few forceful dunks. 

It certainly looks like Pattillo could be a significant contributor to this team going forward, as he gets more acclimated to the offensive sets. If nothing else, he's another capable body Capel can rotate into the lineup when he wants to rest a starter. How many top-ranked teams are adding a key player to their rotation at this point in the season?

We're not even halfway through the conference season, and Oklahoma still has tough road games against Missouri and Texas, but the schedule certainly seems favorable for the Sooners to claim the Big XII title. If the well-oiled machine keeps running like this, they'll also likely be holding a No. 1 seed come March.

And if last year's Final Four taught us anything, it's good to be a No. 1.