Griffin's return to Oklahoma has Sooners looking for title
NORMAN, Okla. -- If there is anyone in college basketball who could feel Tom Crean's pain, it's Jeff Capel.
Like Crean, the new coach who's picking up the pieces at Indiana, Capel rode into Oklahoma on the scorched earth left from Kelvin Sampson. The Sooners escaped major sanctions, but Sampson's chronic case of dial-itis still cost them scholarship reductions and recruiting limitations -- enough to set the program back significantly.
Capel knew all of that when he came to Norman, but as he strapped on his waders to glide through the mess, he questioned everything -- his coaching ability, his decision-making and even his sanity. He had left what he knew would be his best Virginia Commonwealth team, a crew that later upset Duke in the NCAA tournament's first round, for a rebuilding project in the glare of major conference expectations.
So what advice might Capel offer to Crean, who's still sifting through the rubble in Bloomington?
"Easy: Get a guy like Blake Griffin," Capel said with a laugh. "When we signed him, it allowed me as a coach to have thoughts about a [Top 25] season like this. Up to that point, I felt lost. I thought I made a mistake. The day he signed, that all changed."
UNC's Tyler Hansbrough may be the face of college basketball and, as the best player on the best team, might very well repeat as national player of the year. But when June rolls around and it's time for David Stern to pass out ball caps, don't be surprised to hear Griffin's name called first. The sophomore is a physically gifted, scary-strong power forward whose basketball IQ is off the charts. Forget the 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds he averaged as a freshman. Griffin also dished out at least three assists in 11 games last year from his position in the blocks, a first for any OU player 6-foot-10 or taller.
He has the sort of game NBA people salivate over and, at a time when the league is weighing character as much as ability, he has the demeanor they crave as well. A missed opportunity at practice merits a grimace normally reserved for a blown chance in a Final Four. A converted pass ends with a fist pump, and when Capel finally calls an end to a practice marathon, Griffin stays in the gym to shoot while everyone else schleps to the showers.
It all looks so easy for him now, but Griffin isn't your typical stud college basketball player. He wasn't discovered in the sixth grade and coddled every year thereafter. He spent the better part of his high school career under the radar, literally bursting on the scene after a breakout summer following his junior year.
But even with a McDonald's All-American honor, he didn't ride to college on the same fanfare wagon that brought Michael Beasley, Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo and Kevin Love to their respective campuses last season.
For most of his life, Griffin was Taylor's little brother, Little Griffin.
"I followed him everywhere," Blake said. "I was always trying to catch up after him or go with him."
The two spent an unusual amount of time together. Miserable at her job and tired of dropping her boys off at day care, Gail Griffin decided to homeschool her children, teaching them from first grade until Taylor was in the tenth grade and Blake was in eighth. From there, both attended Oklahoma Christian School in Edmond, where more familial love awaited. Their dad, Tommy, was the basketball coach.
Most days, all the togetherness was good.
"I'm not saying it was an absolute joyride every day, but I absolutely treasured being with them," Gail said of the homeschooling. "Taylor, being the older one, was a self-starter and very diligent, and Blake just naturally followed suit. Blake was more the one who wanted to hurry, hurry so he could go outside and climb a tree, but they were both pretty good about it."
At Oklahoma Christian, they realized working together had its benefits. They won two state basketball championships together before Taylor went off to OU.
While Taylor was gone, Blake turned into a basketball monster. He won state titles in both of his remaining high school years, leading Oklahoma Christian to a gaudy 106-6 record. As a senior, he averaged 26.8 points, 15.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.9 blocks per game.
Yet although Blake was ranked 23rd in his 2007 recruiting class, he still wasn't on the stratosphere of the rest of his talented class when he decided to traipse after his brother again and choose Oklahoma.
The Griffins' order of things tilted on its axis somewhere around mid-December last season. Blake put up 11 points and six rebounds against Arkansas, starting a stretch of six games during which he averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds before being slowed down by knee injuries.
By the time his freshman year ended, a rookie year that had Oklahoma fans invoking the name of Wayman Tisdale as an adequate comparison, Blake was no longer Taylor's little brother.
Taylor now is Blake's brother, the sidekick engulfed by the swarm that seems to follow Blake wherever he goes.
"It's interesting," Taylor said judiciously.
But the former sparring partners have grown into presidents of each other's admiration societies. Blake believes he wouldn't have become player he is without Taylor, convinced that his big brother's chronic beatdowns as kids have made him better.
Taylor, in the meantime, harbors no ill will or jealousy toward his brother.
"Sometimes he'll do something and I'll be like everyone else: 'Dang, did he just do that?'" he said. "But I think it would be harder if all this was happening to someone who wasn't in your family, if it was just another teammate. When it's someone you're close to, you're just so happy for them."
"We'd be disappointed if we weren't playing in the Final Four," said sophomore guard Cade (who clearly isn't stealing the one-game-at-a-time clichés from Crash) Davis.
Oklahoma has added pieces -- freshman Willie Warren, another McDonald's All-American, should shore up the backcourt -- but really, the Sooners' success weighs on the 19-year-old shoulders of Blake Griffin.
"I've had heart-to-hearts with him about that," said Capel, who called on his own experiences as a player at Duke to help Griffin. "At the end of the summer, he made a list of goals for this season. We went over them, and then I called him back in. I told him, there are two things we forgot: One is to have fun, and the last is to enjoy the journey."
The fun part he's got down. In a players' poll conducted by OU media relations associate director Mike Houck, Griffin was named best prankster and best impersonator.
He's been mimicking people since he was a kid, knocking out every one of Taylor's AAU teammates. He's gotten assistant coaches Ben Betts and Mark Cline down and recently cracked up the OU football team when he did his version of OU quarterback (and his former AAU teammate) Sam Bradford.
Rumor has it that Griffin also does a good Jeff Capel impersonation.
"It's pretty good," said Capel, who caught the act when Griffin didn't know he was watching.
Griffin sheepishly admits he practices -- "I'm not gonna lie, I do when no one is around" -- but when asked for an impromptu performance, he demurred.
"No, I can't. Not for anybody, sorry," he said. "I promised I wouldn't do Coach Capel until we won a national championship."
Fair enough. Oklahoma's journey out of NCAA quicksand started with Griffin. He ought to be able to write the final scene.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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