On February 23 the Oklahoma Sooners were flying high as the Kings of the Conference. They were knocking on the door of the nation's #1 ranking with a 25-1 record that had them in the driver's seat for a regular season conference championship and one of the four top seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Ten days later the Sooners would find themselves losing for the third time in four games and in the driver's seat for the third seed in the Big 12 Tournament.
Early Warning Signs
I don't think that the fans are the only ones confused as to exactly what has happened over the last week and-a-half. The team has to be wondering where their mojo went as much as the fans are wondering just how far they can fall. Suddenly, simple passes aren't so simple anymore. Easy baskets aren't as easy and amazing shots have almost disappeared. If you're thinking that this all starts and ends with Blake Griffin's then you are wrong. It isn't that cut and dry.
On February 7th freshman guard Ray Willis was suspended indefinitely from the team for a suspicion of driving under the influence arrest. The announcement wasn't made until after Oklahoma's 77-72 victory over Colorado and at the time seemed as insignificant as Willis' playing time.
Then a week later sophomore forward Kyle Cannon was dismissed from the team for breaking unspecified team rules. Cannon had less of an impact on the team's performance than Willis did but it was becoming evident that although it was minor there was some trouble in paradise. Team chemistry is going to be an underlying theme here because it is crucial in making a championship run. You know what they say though, "A bad apple spoils the bunch!" which then begs the question has this bunch been spoiled?
Blake Griffin wasn't off to a great start in Austin but just like so many other times this season it was just a matter of time before he warmed up and the Longhorns wore down. Dogus Balbay scored 10 points, grabbed 8 boards and dished out 9 assists for Texas that night but more importantly he dished out a few blows to the head of Blake Griffin leaving the Sooner star dazed, confused and ultimately concussed. Oklahoma lost 73-68 that night and the dream of an undefeated conference season was lost with it.
The dream of winning a regular season Big 12 Championship would still be alive for two more days. Word came early in the afternoon on the 23rd that Blake Griffin wouldn't suit up that night against the Kansas Jayhawks meaning that the Sooners would be underdogs at home. Despite a heroic 23-point effort by Willie Warren the Sooners went down against the perennial conference champs.
The world seemed to give Oklahoma a pass for losing without Griffin. Even some members of the national media suggested that those games be marked with an asterisk. The Kansas game would mark the first time that Jeff Capel would use a different starting lineup and the first time the team would be forced to look for another on the floor leader. Basically the chemistry was jacked with once again but this time in a much more significant manner but we haven't seen anything yet.
Three days after the Kansas loss Juan Pattillo was suspended for the Texas Tech game for skipping class. This was followed up by some sort of pre-game altercation that landed Willie Warren in Jeff Capel's dog house. Warren only played twelve minutes and was shutout on the scoreboard but Blake Griffin was back on the floor and Oklahoma was able to pull away down the stretch for a 78-63 victory but it was clear that this team wasn't back to clicking just yet.
Early this week there were rumors of another altercation involving two of the players and by the time the team took the floor against Missouri Wednesday night they were totally dysfunctional. OU turned the ball over 21 times and never could get gain any kind of cohesiveness on the floor. The result was a 73-64 loss and the surrendering of the top of the conference to the north. The worst part was that you almost got the impression that they didn't care.
Who knows what has really happened to the Sooners but my belief is that they lost their drive when they lost the Kansas game. They were no longer motivated by winning a regular season conference because it was no longer possible. Thus the second or third seed in the conference tournament no longer mattered because it wasn't #1.
Here's where my colleagues and I disagree (and for the record I hope they are right) and I believe that the team stands on their side of the fence. They believe that if OU wins the Big 12 Tournament then they can still secure a #1 seed for the Big Dance. I disagree! The Big 12 is down this year and I believe that the Kansas loss at Texas Tech Wednesday night ended any chances of the conference getting a top seed.
This team needs something to play for! Bedlam this afternoon should provide some motivation as the Sooners look for their fifth consecutive game against the Cowboys on
senior Blake Griffin Day. After that the race for the conference championship is back on and in Oklahoma's backyard when the conference tournament begins at the Ford Center on Wednesday.
Competition is what this team thrives on and they are about to get a whole lot of it. If tournament play isn't the cure all then they have much deeper team chemistry issues than any of us thought. Frustration adds more tension to any situation and the Sooners certainly have had a lot to be frustrated over. Their two best players are a sophomore and a freshman and possibly still lack the maturity to properly vent their frustrations which could have added to the altercations. A common team goal should restore unity and alleviate frustration as they make strides in achieving that goal. That all begins this afternoon at 2:30.