Oklahoma guards pick up the slack in Sooners' win over Purdue
NEW YORK -- It was 15 years ago, but Jeff Capel still remembers what people said about him during his freshman year at Duke.
That average backcourt led Duke to the 1994 national championship game.
Capel hears the same whispers now. Sitting in Oklahoma's low blocks is perhaps the best player in the country in Blake Griffin, a guy who's becoming an urban legend with numbers that reach almost Bunyanesque proportions.
But the college game remains a game of little men. Talented big men are tantalizing visitors who stun the game with their power, and blaze a trail to the NBA, but rarely lift a team to a title by themselves. Greg Oden couldn't do it; ditto Michael Beasley, Tyler Hansbrough (yet) and Kevin Love.
In the past 10 years, seven of the Final Four MVP trophies have gone to perimeter players (Joakim Noah, Sean May and Emeka Okafor are the exceptions).
So the question trailing the Sooners is a simple one. Regardless of the otherworldly skills of Griffin, are the guards good enough? If they can't get the ball to Griffin, what good is he? If they can't score when Griffin is double- or even triple-teamed, what good is Oklahoma?
There are few definitive answers in November basketball, but there are signs, and the signs right now say the Sooners' guards are good enough. Rookie Willie Warren led Oklahoma with 22 points, Austin Johnson chipped in 11 more and Tony Crocker forced a critical turnover at the end of regulation to lead No. 13 Oklahoma to an 87-82 overtime win over ninth-ranked Purdue in the NIT Season Tip-Off title game.
"I realized what defense they were playing," Warren said. "They were really trying to pressure our guards but our guards are very talented and no one in the country can guard us that close. Our guards are too quick for anybody to play us like that without being able to get by them."
That might have sounded like hyperbole as recently as a week ago, but after this game, few would argue now that the Sooners' guards are little more than window dressing on the Blake Griffin statue.
Purdue is a top-10 team for two reasons: the Boilermakers can shoot the lights out on one end and get in your face on the other.
They did both against Oklahoma, forcing the Sooners out of a zone in a critical stretch of the second half with five consecutive 3-pointers and putting as much pressure on the ball as humanly possible in an effort to make it impossible to get the ball to Griffin.
Yet Warren, wisely recognizing the attention being paid Griffin and the fact that the Sooners spent an awful lot of time in the double bonus (Oklahoma took 46 free throws to Purdue's five, just part of the reason why Boilermakers coach Matt Painter threw an all-out, but justifiable hissy fit in the final seconds of overtime), wormed his way to the hoop time and again.
"It's really amazing for a young guy, a freshman, to really understand the team fouls," Capel said. "You could hear him telling other guys, 'We're in the double bonus. Keep driving.'"
Pardon Painter if he viewed it a little differently. The chasm between trips to the line was just the tip of what sent him over the edge. The proverbial last straw came twice in the final 30 seconds of overtime.
Trapped in the corner, Crocker threw a ball back toward midcourt, where Johnson went up for the ball with two Boilermakers defenders. Despite the fact Johnson never really gained possession, referee Michael Stephens awarded Oklahoma with a timeout.
Painter went ballistic.
"Sometimes things don't go your way but the explanation is still baffling to me," Painter said. "He said it was an inadvertent whistle, and so the ball now went to the possession arrow and Oklahoma had the possession arrow. I was puzzled because as a coach, you hear it all or you think you hear it all."
Twenty-five seconds later, Stephens whistled E'Twaun Moore for an intentional foul. With just 8.1 seconds left, Crocker's free throws and the ensuing Oklahoma possession signaled a de facto end to the game.
As Crocker went to the line, Painter unleashed on Stephens from across the court. It was a technical-worthy performance, but with seven seconds left, not worth the whistle for Stephens, who kept his arms crossed and whistle silent.
Fact is, the officials didn't force the Boilermakers to go away from their entire offensive scheme in overtime. Oklahoma dropped back into the zone but instead of shooting out of it, the Boilers looked lost. Three times they came down the court and twice Chris Kramer, a defensive specialist, not offensive machine, took the shot -- including once when the shot clock expired on his air ball.
The Boilers barely looked at the rim, didn't even attempt to get the ball inside to Nemanja Calasan and inexplicably couldn't get it in the hands of Moore, who torched the Sooners for 22 points.
Down 83-80 with 16 seconds left, Lewis Jackson finally penetrated the lane, but instead of going for the layup, he tried to pass out to Marcus Green. Green, however, was cutting toward the basket and the ball bounced out of bounds.
"He kind of just dribbled to be passing and that's a good learning lesson for him," Painter said of Jackson. "He's got to use his speed, get a layup and call timeout and play defense."
But the endgame and Painter's histrionics (which continued as he screeched and screamed into the locker room) shouldn't overshadow what was a well-played, high-intensity game that deserved a March date instead of November.
There were heads bouncing off floors and balls bouncing off heads.
In one insane series, Griffin went up like a pinball between angry bumpers, and was practically pancaked by two Purdue defenders. He missed the shot, but his brother, Taylor, got the rebound and passed to Warren. Warren missed and Blake Griffin came down with another rebound, wrestling for the ball as he fell forward toward the end line in a tussle with Moore. Trying to retain possession for Oklahoma, Griffin threw about a 50-mph fastball that ricocheted a good four feet into the air off Moore's head and out of bounds.
"Yeah that was the most physical anyone's been, I'd say," a smirking Griffin said. "They were grabbing me, holding me. It's nothing I haven't seen before. They were just, um, a little bit more aggressive."
If it's not criminal to call an 18-point, 21-rebound game pedestrian, Griffin was pedestrian. He shot just 5-of-13 from the floor and frequently served more as a bystander than playmaker for the Sooners.
The Boilermakers fronted him, sandwiched him and at times frustrated the bejesus out of him. Griffin admitted a year ago he would have been useless, taken out of the game mentally by the constant pressure.
This time he stayed relatively calm, took what he could and turned the game over to the guys who were open: his guards.
They delivered the win and in the process, provided a resounding answer to their critics.
"That's huge for us," Capel said. "You have to have good guard play and I think our guards, I think they're a little like I was as a freshman. They hear what's being said and I'm sure it motivates them. I know it did for me."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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