KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A month ago Oklahoma was 25-1 and a victory away from being No. 1 in the nation.
Now, no less an authority than President Barack Obama is disparaging the Sooners’ chances of making much of a splash in the NCAA tournament.
“The problem with Oklahoma, they have the player of the year but they play, like, seven guys. I think you start getting worn down,” the President told ESPN.
So would Sooners coach Jeff Capel care to comment on American economic policy?
“I was hearing that all year in Oklahoma, that we didn’t play enough guys,” Capel said with a slight smile. “So I’ll let President Obama stick to running the country and I’ll try to coach my team to the best of my ability.”
In 6-foot-10 sophomore Blake Griffin, the Sooners possess the most dominant inside threat in the country, the nation’s leading rebounder and just about everybody’s choice for player of the year.
And no one is expecting the No. 2 seed Sooners (27-5) to have difficulty in the first round Thursday with 15th-seeded Morgan State (23-11) and coach Todd Bozeman, who has resurrected his once-dead coaching career.
But Oklahoma is rarely being mentioned as a strong Final Four candidate. The Sooners have lost four of their last six, including a 71-70 setback to Oklahoma State last week in the opening round of the Big 12 tourney.
It seemed as though they lost their rhythm when Griffin went out for two games with a concussion and haven’t been able to find it.
“We just needed to get back to playing how we were in the beginning of the season and early in the conference games,” said Griffin, who averaged 21.9 points and 14.3 rebounds and set the Big 12 season record with 444 boards. “I think we’ve done a good job. I think it’s more about just really getting back to everybody playing the way they were and everybody understanding what they need to do.”
Capel admitted he spent the past week working hard on both the mental and physical aspects of the game.
“Probably an equal amount of both things,” the third-year Oklahoma coach said. “We obviously started preparing for Morgan State.”
Griffin may be the Sooners’ best player, but he’s not their only good one. Big brother Taylor Griffin will pose another challenge as Morgan State makes it debut in the NCAA tournament. Willie Warren averages 14.7 points and was a unanimous choice as Big 12 freshman of the year.
“If you’ve been around our guys, you know there’s not a lack of confidence there,” Capel said. “Our season was interrupted a little bit. We were playing really, really well and with that game at Texas our best player gets hurt in the first half, and it’s a really significant blow because everything we do revolves around Blake, both offensively and defensively.”
The Sooners won’t be the first good team Morgan State has played. They beat Maryland 66-65 on Jan. 7 and lost 81-67 at Pac-10 power Washington. But just by being here, the Bears have fulfilled a dream of their controversial coach, who was forced to resign at California in 1996 for violating NCAA rules.
Cal had to forfeit all its victories from the 1994-95 season. Bozeman admitted he had lied to the school and to NCAA investigators, and was subsequently slapped with the dreaded “show-cause” label. That meant that any NCAA school that wished to hire him had to explain why it was doing so. Generally, a show cause effectively bans a coach from working in the NCAA.
After 10 years as an NBA scout, Bozeman became head coach at Morgan State, and now he’s led the Bears into their first NCAA tournament.
But crossing this new threshold for himself and his school does not bury what happened at Cal, Bozeman said.
“It’s been buried for me. I buried it when I apologized. I meant it,” he said.
“That was the last time I was going to apologize for it. Today a guy asked me did I feel like a villain. If someone still views me as a villain 13 years later, then come on. There’s a lot more things going on in the world. I moved on from it. People make mistakes. I will not allow someone else to define who I am.”