Men's basketball head coach discusses his team and the upcoming 2008-09 season.
July 31, 2008
NORMAN, Okla. - Following a 16-15 record in his first year as Oklahoma men's basketball head coach, Jeff Capel guided the Sooners to a 23-12 record last season and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Now, the 33-year-old has the OU program primed for what he hopes will be a breakout 2008-09 campaign. Many in the college basketball world have taken notice of the Sooners, and of Capel's abilities.
"In just two years, Jeff Capel has put a significant imprint on the program at Oklahoma," said CBS college basketball analyst Seth Davis. "His teams play hard, smart and together, and he is having terrific success on the recruiting trail. They enter the 2008-09 season with one of the premiere inside-outside combinations in America in Blake Griffin and Willie Warren. If the Sooners can stay healthy, they clearly have the potential to challenge for the Big 12 championship and play deep into the 2009 NCAA tournament."
Added ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas, "Jeff Capel has been called one of the best young coaches in the country. We need to drop the adjective ‘young,’ because Jeff is one of the best coaches in the country, period. He took over during a difficult transition at Oklahoma and built things back up his way, and his way has proven to be a winning way. His players believe in him, and the results have been positive. The scary thing is, as good as Jeff is now, he’s getting better."
Capel recently sat down with SoonerSports.com for a Q&A in which he discussed his program and the upcoming 2008-09 season.
Your program made some nice strides last year. How would you sum up your second season?
"I thought we had a very good season. I thought we made a huge jump as a program. Finishing in the top four of the best league in the country and to win a game in the NCAA Tournament was huge for our program in so many different ways. When you make the tournament, especially as an at-large team, that means you've done something really good. I don't think you should ever take making the NCAA Tournament for granted. Winning a game and being one of the final 32 teams left - the experience our returning guys gained from that is invaluable. Also, getting our national respect back and getting our program back to what it was before 2006-07 when we didn't make the postseason were very important. All of those things give us really positive momentum heading into this season."
What will the loss of seniors David Godbold and Longar Longar mean to this year's team?
"First of all, they were both four-year guys. They were very valuable contributors. David started off and on all four years. He was a really good glue guy. He didn't do anything that really stood out, but he was just a good player. He defended at a high level, he'd get in and rebound for you. Offensively, he knew all the plays. When he scored, that was a plus. Even without scoring a bunch, he always found a way to be on the floor and be an effective member of the team. What we'll miss from him is his defensive experience and his ability to make others on the floor comfortable.
"I thought Longar was our best player during that stretch of December games when we beat Arkansas, Gonzaga and West Virginia. I really hate that he got hurt because he was a shell of himself after that. He showed incredible toughness to play with a broken bone in his leg. Longar was a good player for us these last two years. He made so many strides offensively and became a guy you could depend on, especially before he got hurt. He defended at a high level with his blocked shots and shot altering, at times he rebounded at a high level, and he was a guy who could score in different ways -- offensive rebounding, running the floor, in the low post and from 15 to 17 feet. So those are two guys we'll really miss. But we do have some good players returning and some good guys coming in. We lose two but we gain six. Hopefully those six can make up for that loss."
What are potential areas of difference between last year's team and this year's squad?
"A big thing, and maybe the most important thing, is health. There really wasn't a time last year, except for maybe that December stretch, where we were really healthy. I thought we were very, very good during that stretch. Also, hopefully we'll have more depth. We think we will. We'd like our guys to be a little bit fresher throughout the season.
"I think we improve athletically. All the guys we signed are good athletes. Some are very good and one is a great athlete. So I think we improve drastically in that area. Size wise, I think we improve. At the end of last year it was Blake Griffin, Longar Longar and Taylor Griffin. During the conference season, Blake and Longar missed games. Now all of a sudden we potentially have Blake, Taylor, Ryan Wright, Orlando Allen, Kyle Cannon and Juan Pattillo. So the depth there drastically improves. I think our talent level greatly improves with these six new guys. Each of them brings a unique quality to our team, which is maybe something we didn't have.
"With all of that said, I think it's imperative that we come together and that we develop a dynamic chemistry. If that happens, we have the chance to have a really good basketball team. I like the possibility of what we can become."
Is there anything that concerns you about the upcoming season?
"Inexperience. That's a big concern when you have six new guys. Nine of our 12 scholarship guys will be in their first or second year of Division I basketball. I count Ryan Wright as one of those nine because even though he played two years at UCLA, he sat out last year. Blake Griffin, Cade Davis and Omar Leary will only be in their second year. And then you add six new guys. It's also trying to combine six new personalities. Fortunately, I think we have some good guys on our team. Hopefully we can have some returning guys step up as leaders and kind of police everybody. I've always felt that really good teams police themselves. They take care of the team stuff themselves. And it has to start during the summer."
Is that the biggest key to overcoming inexperience?
"I really think so. This will be one of the last times you hear me talk about inexperience. I won't talk about it because it's not an excuse. It's there, but it's not something we'll talk about much. These guys have to grow up quickly. Blake Griffin, as a sophomore now and with all the things he dealt with as a freshman, he should be able to help Willie Warren. Omar Leary should be able to help Orlando Allen, Kyle Cannon and Juan Pattillo make the transition from junior college to here. Those three don't play the same position as Omar, but he can help them.
"Taylor Griffin and Austin Johnson should be able to help everyone because they've been through everything here -- success, failure, a coaching change. Tony Crocker should be able to really help. The same thing with Ryan Wright and his experience of playing in two Final Fours. Also, with him sitting out last year, there should be a hunger inside of him.
"We have to be able to be on the same page and there has to be one goal. With that there has to be sacrifice. They're all good players and we need them to be good players. But for the greater good of the team, that sacrifice has to be the most important thing."
Do you sense that the returning guys are latching on to that "team" mindset?
"I do, I really do. This has been different from any spring/summer since I've been here. Our guys know we have a chance to be good, a chance to have a really special season. There's an excitement I haven't seen since I got to OU, and it's really neat to see. Whether it's talking to me or texting me, they're always talking about it. Because of that, it's really elevated what we've done in our spring individual workouts and the way they're working in the summer to get to another level. That's something you have to do when you're trying to take your program to another level. When our season was over last year, we talked about wanting to get to the Sweet 16 or advancing even further, having a chance to win the Big 12. I talk to our guys constantly about how our level of work and level of preparation have to improve. I think they've taken that to heart."
How does Blake Griffin's decision to return affect this team and the program as a whole?
"It affects it a lot, in so many positive ways. If you look at the landscape of college basketball, how many guys came back that were definite top-10 picks? None, except Blake Griffin. That means we’ll have one of the top players — if not the top player — in the country returning. Also, hopefully it gives more attention to our program and will spark more interest in it. I think we’ve already seen that nationally with some of the publications and what people are thinking about us. For our team, it should give us confidence.
"Also, it should help us on the recruiting front -- kids knowing that they can come here and develop into a pro, into a potential lottery pick, which is what Blake will be. So it helps us in so many different ways.
"Blake makes the game so much easier for his teammates. As good as he was last year, we expect him to be even better this season because of how hard he's been working and how determined he is to become a better player. Because of his size, his speed, his strength, he's a guy teams have to gameplan for. At the same time, our other guys getting better helps make the game easier for Blake. So it goes hand in hand. I think he understands that now. The maturity level of his game and of him as a person has grown dramatically since the end of last year."
How much has Ryan Wright improved since he arrived a year ago?
"A lot. First of all, he came here as a good player. When you have a chance to play against the guys he did every day in practice at UCLA, that helps a lot. He was also very well coached there. But here, sitting out, one of the things he did was get to work on him, to work on his game. He wasn't worried about getting ready for games last year. One of the things we talked to him about was being selfish and spending a year working on different aspects of his game. In doing that, he helped us in practice immensely. It helped him that he got to play against Blake and Longar each day in practice. Also, sitting out has made him even hungrier, even more excited to get out there and play. When you're unable to do something you really love, you appreciate it even more and there's greater value added to it. I think we'll see that in Ryan this year."
Willie Warren is probably the most highly regarded high school guard to ever sign with OU. What makes him such a good player?
"A lot of things make him a very talented player. First of all, his size helps him. He's 6-4 and probably 205 pounds. So he's a really big, strong physical guard. He's incredibly gifted athletically, getting up in the air and moving. He's not the fastest guy, but he's faster than you think. He's just powerful and explosive.
"One of the biggest things is that he has confidence. He's an incredibly confident young man. And in order to be a really good player, especially as a guard, you have to have that. You have to have a confidence and a swagger. He handles it, he can score it in so many different ways. He can score it from deep, he has a really good mid-range game and, because of his strength and explosiveness, he can get to the basket and finish with contact.
"Willie has the potential to be a great defender. That's something we're really going to challenge him with. He wants to be really good. In order to be really good, you have to allow yourself to be pushed and you have to go to limits you don't think you have. That's our responsibility, to get him there. We look forward to pushing him beyond whatever limits he may have in his mind so he can be the player we think he can be. I think he can be one of the great ones."
Will the influx of athletic ability and a deeper roster affect the type of game played on the court this year?
"Hopefully it will. The big thing with that is health. But hopefully we will be able to utilize our depth. Also, guys have to step up and play well for that depth to be productive. You don't want to just throw guys out there; you want to have productive depth. We think we'll be able to have that but it's up to our guys to really work so they earn the right to play. The only thing I give is opportunity. They earn everything else.
"I'm anticipating that happening. I'm anticipating us being able to pick our defense up, use multiple defenses and do different things. Offensively, hopefully we're able to create more from our defense, really run more, fill the wings and take advantage of our athleticism. But our guys have to be fully committed to that. A big part of that is getting in shape this summer -- great shape with their bodies and conditioning, but also great shape mentally. Everyone wants to play fast, but guys don't understand the commitment it takes to do that. It's imperative that we do that this summer. That was a point of emphasis in our end-of-the-year meetings with the players and hopefully they're doing that this summer."
How do you see the Big 12 race shaping up?
"It will be incredibly competitive again, even though we had a lot of underclassmen leaving from our league. I think Texas is going to be a very good team, even though they lost D.J. Augustin. The last time they lost someone like that -- Kevin Durant -- no one thought they would be as good. Well, they were better. They have four starters returning, but I say it's five because I think Gary Johnson was good enough to start last year. Those guys are really good.
"I think Kansas will be really good. I thought Sherron Collins was one of the better guards in the country last year, and will be again this year. Cole Aldrich certainly proved in the NCAA Tournament, especially in the Final Four against North Carolina, that he's ready to step up after he was behind some very good players. They also have a very strong recruiting class. Baylor will be right there as one of the better teams in the league. They return virtually their whole team.
"Oklahoma State has a chance to be very good. Their backcourt was really good last year and they return all of their guards. Marcus Dove is their only loss and they get some guys back from injury. I think they'll be excited with the new style Travis (Ford) is bringing. Doc Sadler at Nebraska had a lot of guys sitting out last year. Doc does a great job and his guys will play really hard. I think they'll be improved. Missouri has a lot of its core from the end of the year -- when I thought they were really good -- returning. They're back and Mike (Anderson) had a nice recruiting class. A&M also had a good recruiting class and has some very good players returning.
"So I think from top to bottom, our league will be really good and very competitive again. I don't know who the favorites are, but I'd have to say Texas, Baylor, Kansas. But I think we'll be right there in the mix. Hopefully we can stay healthy enough and work hard enough to earn the right to compete for a league title."