Unexpected problems for Oklahoma, a preseason pick to finish third in the Big 12, can be attributed to some unforeseen circumstances such as injuries.
But the nine-game losing streak the Sooners endured to cap a 13-18 season was still alarming. OU tied for ninth in the Big 12 at 4-12 and missed out on the postseason for the second time in four years under coach Jeff Capel following back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.
Capel acknowledged throughout the season he tried to push all the buttons he possibly recognized, yet couldn't find a way to get his team righted. Then down the stretch, Oklahoma lost sophomore guard Willie Warren, who required ankle surgery.
Warren did not meet expectations as a preseason All-Big 12 pick, though he did average a team-best 16.3 points. The leadership responsibilities he was expected to assume following the loss of national player of the year Blake Griffin to the NBA, were not fulfilled as Capel questioned his guard's attitude and dedication.
With losses mounting at the end of the season, Oklahoma was at its worst in the Big 12 tournament. It was eliminated 81-67 in the first round by arch-rival Oklahoma State and was out of the game in the first half when it fell behind by as many as 24 points.
Asked if he was relieved the trying season was over, Capel brushed off the suggestion. Good thing, considering Oklahoma had a 25-year run of postseason appearances prior to his arrival.
"No, I'm not (relieved)," he said. "And if I ever get to that point, Joe (Castiglione) or whoever is my AD, should fire me. ... Or I will just walk away, because I shouldn't be doing what I'm doing."
Some of the challenges Capel faces next season will be of the same variety since he'll be coaching many of the same players. Considering his draft stock plummeted, Warren would be wise to return, especially coming off the injury. Two freshmen who came in as prep All-Americans, point guard Tommy Mason-Griffin and forward Tiny Gallon, will try to realize their potential after inconsistent debuts.
The potential exists for a turnaround. But then the turnaround Oklahoma endured this past season was excruciating coming off a 2009 finish in which the Sooners were one win away from reaching the Final Four riding the dominant touch of Griffin.
"Frustrating. Difficult from every angle," Capel said. "For me, frustrating I wasn't able to do a better job with my team. ... Frustrating year, but this is an opportunity for all of us to learn and get better."
FINAL RECORD: 13-18, 4-12, ninth in the Big 12.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Very little. Injuries proved difficult to overcome because of lack of depth. One of the few positives for Oklahoma was the development of G Cade Davis, a 6-5 junior who grew from role player into a 10-point scorer as a starter. A capable outside shooter, Davis also has quick hands, swiping three or more steals in nine games. G Willie Warren remains an offensive threat, while G Tommy Mason-Griffin showed flashes of greatness as a freshman running the point. F Tiny Gallon also showed flashes and ranked eighth in the Big 12 in rebounding, but rarely avoided foul trouble.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Problems surfaced in November when Jeff Capel lost a homecoming trip back to Virginia Commonwealth, where he got his start as a head coach. The Sooners then lost their first two games in the Great Alaska Shootout. Injuries mounted once Big 12 play began and finally Warren was lost with an ankle injury. Although the sophomore never emerged as the leader most expected, he was still the Sooners' most versatile scorer. The lack of depth made his loss devastating as minutes stockpiled for regulars and led to fatigue, contributing to a nine-game losing streak to end the season for OU, its longest skid since losing 10 straight in 1963-64.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't think I'm a worse coach than I was last year. I didn't think I was a better coach at the end of last year than I was the previous year. But this will definitely help me grow as a coach, help me in some decision-making processes going forward." -- Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THE GOOD NEWS: Time now exists for Oklahoma to get healthy, get rested and get motivated for next season. The future of G Willie Warren will be interesting since it appeared the sophomore was on a fast track to the NBA before a disappointing season derailed his progress. If he returns, the Sooners have a go-to scorer to count on, as well as a promising playmaker in G Tommy Mason-Griffin. Underneath, two burly freshmen who can provide good numbers, F Tiny Gallon and F Andrew Fitzgerald, must improve and learn to avoid foul trouble. G Cade Davis was a pleasant surprise after he was thrust into the starting lineup and will be a key shooter and defender next season.
THE BAD NEWS: In four seasons as Oklahoma's coach, Jeff Capel has usually employed a thin rotation. It seems to be his preference, though he had little choice as injuries mounted this past season, including the loss of Warren (ankle). Capel tried nine different starting lineups. The big question for the Sooners now is whether they can rebound from a 13-18 finish and contend for an NCAA Tournament berth in 2010-11. It will take a giant leap, particularly within the loaded Big 12. Rumors floated concerning potential NBA intentions, not only regarding Warren, but also Gallon and Mason-Griffin. Capel needs to get everyone focused on an Oklahoma turnaround.
KEY RETURNEES: Depends on who wants to buy into Capel's system and focus on what he can do for Oklahoma. With rumors swirling about NBA defectors, Capel said, "That's an insult to players in the NBA." He's right. Two promising freshmen, Gallon and Mason-Griffin, were inconsistent throughout the season. Warren seemed distracted when he was healthy and didn't always handle defensive attention well after looking unstoppable at times as a freshman, even in games All-American Blake Griffin missed because of injury. If Warren plays to the level he's capable of reaching, and also provides leadership, an impressive recovery is possible. Capel, however, faces a distinct challenge.
--G Willie Warren attempted to play on a bad right ankle before the Oklahoma medical staff opted for surgery and shut down the sophomore's season. Warren missed the last six games (10 overall) and did not travel with the team to the Big 12 tournament.
--F Tiny Gallon said after the season-ending loss against Oklahoma State that he would return for his sophomore season and not consider a jump to the NBA. G Tommy Mason-Griffin also indicated such a move, as of "right now." Each freshman came to OU as a prep All-American.
--G Tommy Mason-Griffin was the highest-decorated Sooner on the All-Big 12 team. He was named to the third team. G Willie Warren, a preseason pick, was honorable mention.