Wow! How many athletic programs have three different high-profile sports teams reach the top three in a season? Football and both men's and women's basketball. Add to that those three teams have arguably three of the best, players in their sports: Sam Bradford, Courtney Paris, and Blake Griffin. Talk about ménage à trois dream fantasy heaven!
Okay, the Oklahoma Sooners have their best record (20-1) since the 1987-88 team that made it all the way the 1988 NCAA tournament championship game against the Danny Manning-led Kansas Jayhawks.
Most of us know what happened in that game: Manning turned in one of the best tournament finals performances in history—31 points, 18 rebounds, five steals, two blocked shots, and an MVP trophy in an 83-79 KU victory. (Having the game in Kansas City didn't hurt one bit either.)
Back in the 1980s, coach Billy Tubbs (1980-1994) showed up not long before a 6'9" forward from Tulsa, Wonderful Wayman Tisdale (1983-85). Before Tubbs and Tisdale, Lloyd Noble Center was place for football fans to chat about the upcoming spring practice twice a week.
But Tubbs had his best success with the 1988 team, led by Mookie Blaylock (1988-1989), Harvey Grant (1987-1988), and Stacey King (1985-1989). Two of those guys, Blaylock and Grant, would have pretty solid NBA careers. If only Wayman could have had a guard like Blaylock or Willie Warren.
Fast-forward 20 years: Now it is Jeff Capel's turn. This time Blake Griffin is playing the part of the dominant big guy a la Tisdale or Manning.
If Griffin stays four seasons at OU, he will have an outside shot at eclipsing Wayman's all-time career points (2,661) mark (22.3 PPG x 35 games x three seasons + 484 points from 2008 = 2,825). But he must want to stay and not get injured, and risk of injury is good reason to get a multi-million dollar paycheck.
Now Kelvin Sampson (1994–2006) almost derailed the program into NCAA-sanctioned purgatory, so it is pretty amazing that the team of Capel-Griffin & Co. has been able to pull off what they have so far. Even if the Sooners don't make it far in the tournament of 64 that comes this March, you have to say it has been a pretty amazing run with two pretty new key elements.
What will be the keys to repeating the 1988 tournament run?
1) Three-Guard Rotation
They must get solid play from three different guards. Between Willie Warren, Austin Johnson, and Tony Crocker, the three of them must get into a solid game-rotation routine. All three of them have had some really good games and some other games where they seem to disappear.
There is no doubt that the 20-1 record has been due to Griffin on one hand and one or two of these guys getting hot on the other. A good three-guard rotation is not only essential to winning the championship, but also in just getting there.
Going forward into the tournament, these three guys must smooth out their performances a little, not counting on one of them to get 20 (Warren had 35 points in the loss to Arkansas), but the three of them getting eight to 10 points and two to four assists apiece per game. Give me three with 10 over one with 35 anytime.
2) Big-man Sub for Blake
One of the big guys (Taylor Griffin, Ryan Wright, Juan Pattillo) must step up and give Blake at least a five minute rest per half, a respite he will need to go far in the tournament. Now, one of these guys doesn't need to step up every game, but at least one of them needs to in each game. They can take turns doing it, which would be a good idea, but it will be crucial that it does happen.
3) Unexpected defenses (1-3-Man)
When they get to the tournament, they are going to get some wild defenses that they haven't either seen before, or much of. Nebraska tried it (Jan. 21, OU 72-NU 61) but didn't have the manpower to pull it off. Arkansas did (Dec. 30, L 88-96). If you take the junk defense that Nebraska ran and a team like Pittsburgh runs it on Oklahoma in the tournament, and OU is not ready, they are toast.
Teams are going to run a 1-3 zone with a man on Blake. The Sooners must pick up these changing defenses right away, or five or 10-point runs will occur, and then it will be an uphill battle to get back in the game.
4) Pressure release for Blake
Not only does Griffin need a blow each half, but while he is on the floor he can use some help. One other player per game, don't care who it is, must have his day in the sun to take the pressure of Blake.
Griffin, like Tyler Hansbrough, has opponents' coaches designing their game plan to attack him. Hansbrough has stepped up both his points and rebounds in the face of opposing teams lining up a target on his jersey, and Griffin has gone even farther in improving his production from last year (points up 7.6 and rebounds up 4.9). But this is the regular season, and when March comes it will be a lot tougher.
In order to get to the final game, at least one other teammate must step up and do something each game to get the other team to notice him, and let Griffin slip off into a shadow for a few minutes (for a nice backdoor-where-did-he-come-from), if that is possible.
5) Toughness via Capel, especially at the point
Capel must be a tough coach, like Billy Donovan at Florida (or as Larry Brown did at Kansas). Capel must come across tough and composed. So far this season he has, but OU has yet to get to the tournament. He must convey this toughness to the players, but most importantly to the point guard.
If I had one player to take off the 1988 team, it would be Mookie; if you removed him from that team, it is doubtful the Sooners get past the first round. All the players are going to have to show some of the Billy Donovan-Scott Skiles-Terry Porter-John Stockton-type toughness, but at that one position, it means the ballgame.
Now, that doesn't mean that they have to score a bunch of points; five good points and five assists will do. But they must take the contact and hit those free throws at the crucial point in the game when it is needed and not back down.
All you have to do is look at Florida under Donovan for a blueprint. Great play for the 6'9"/6'10" guys, real toughness at the point, be ready for changing defenses, don't let your star carry the entire load, and all the players on the floor remaining very active and moving their feet.
Now Kansas got to play in Kansas City, so to be equal, OU should get to play the finals in Tulsa, right? So, right there you know it is going to be a tougher fit to get back the final game. I would argue that the entire tournament field will be more level this season, meaning that any team in the top 10 could win it all.
The ability of these freshmen to go to the NBA has changed the game. What if Kansas State still had Michael Beasley this season? Or Texas still had Kevin Durant and D. J. Augustin? Those two guys on the same team with A.J. Abrams and Damion James? Wow.
Capel can be the new Donovan and Griffin can be part of the "Blake and the Miracles" for the 2009 Oklahoma team. (The one thing that OU doesn't want is the following season, 1989, KU was banned from the tournament for recruiting violations of NCAA rules.)
In 1988 OU had Blaylock, Grant, and King, but guys like Milt Newton, Kevin Pritchard, Clint Normore, Keith Harris, and Lincoln Minor made the difference. OU had been leading the nation in scoring with 103 points per, but Kansas (like Florida) set the tempo. Newton had 15 points and hit all six shots from the field, including two three-pointers. You have to have the Newtons to step up if you want to see how sharp your scissors are on twine.
If the three guards, Warren, Johnson, and Crocker, can smooth out their play and jell in a good rotation, and be tough and clutch, there should be no reason that the 2009 Oklahoma team can't be better than the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks.
How about this: Willie Warren and the Wonders!
PS: Talk about depressing—with this economy and Detroit, OU winning the tournament may just be the bright spot of the year.
PPS: Can we also get Sam Bradford and Courtney Paris to play on this team?