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April 20, 2009

Capel has high hopes despite losing Griffin
Steve Megargee College Basketball Staff Writer

Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel already has accomplished more before his 35th birthday than many coaches achieve in an entire lifetime. Now he faces the greatest test of his young career: Can he help Oklahoma remain one of the nation's best programs even without the nation's best player?

Capel, 34, led the Sooners to a 30-6 record and an appearance in the NCAA South Region final this season largely on the strength of 6-foot-10 forward Blake Griffin, who swept the national player of the year awards after setting Big 12 single-season records in rebounds (504), double-doubles (30) and field-goal percentage (.654).

With Blake Griffin gone, Jeff Capel doesn't see reason to change his goals at Oklahoma.
Griffin announced after the season he was leaving school to begin his pro career, and he likely will be the first player taken in the NBA draft. The move was inevitable and perhaps overdue, as most observers expected Griffin to turn pro after his freshman season. But it won't make it any easier for Capel to fill the gaping hole in the Sooners' lineup.

"I look forward to coaching our basketball team next year," Capel said. "I look forward to seeing who we can become. I still think we have some talented guys in the program, and we have some talented new guys coming in. We'll be young. You won't hear me use the excuse of [being] young. We'll just get to work and see what happens."

Oklahoma probably will lag behind Kansas – the likely No. 1 team in the nation – and Texas in the Big 12 preseason poll, but the Sooners still ought to enter the season in the national rankings as long as guard Willie Warren follows through on his pledge to return to school for his sophomore season.

Griffin and his older brother, Taylor Griffin, were OU's starting frontcourt this season.

"It will be weird not having those two guys around," Capel said. "Since I've been here, they've kind of been a security blanket for me, Taylor my first year and Blake the last two years. But the thing those kids have done is they've made this a place where other guys want to come. We're able to attract really good talent. I think that's going to be their legacy as they move on to better things, both Blake and Taylor – just kind of being the guys who made it cool to come to OU."

That much is evident from Oklahoma's recruiting class, which includes three of the nation's top 70 prospects. All three could make immediate impacts.

Keith "Tiny" Gallon is a 6-foot-8 center who dropped about 60 pounds and drastically improved his focus in his senior year at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va. Gallon led all players with 20 points in the McDonald's All American Game and is ranked as the No. 9 overall prospect in the recruiting class.
Gallon should team with 6-9 center Andrew Fitzgerald (the No. 70 prospect, from Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H.) to step in for the Griffin brothers in the frontcourt, while 5-10 point guard Tommy Mason-Griffin (No. 46, from Houston Madison) can replace the departed Austin Johnson in the starting lineup. Although Mason-Griffin is five inches shorter than Johnson, at 206 pounds he also is 30 pounds heavier.

"If [Gallon] continues to condition his body and stays where he needs to stay condition-wise, he's the type of player who could be a freshman of the year in the Big 12," national recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer said. "With Fitzgerald, he's just one of those guys who gets it done. He's a double-double machine. There's nothing sexy or glamorous about his game. He's a big body right at the rim or below the rim, but he's the type of player who has a knack for getting the ball in the basket and who has very good instincts and good hands.

"Tommy Mason-Griffin is exceptionally well-built. He's like a bowling ball, and he can really shoot the ball. He's one of those guys who can always get a shot. Anytime the shot clock runs down and you have to get a shot, he can get it."

Oklahoma's ability to attract that kind of talent helps explain why Capel decided to remain in Norman at a time when he had plenty of leverage for any of the other openings around the country. Capel, who began his head-coaching career at Virginia Commonwealth, had been mentioned as a candidate for the jobs at Virginia and Arizona.

Capel instead indicated on the eve of the Final Four that he was negotiating a new contract at Oklahoma.

"I believe in what we're doing," Capel said. "I've got a great athletic director in Joe Castiglione, and I work for a great president [David Boren]. And it's the kids we have in our program. I just really believe in the direction where we're going. I don't want to leave."

Jeff Capel has three talented recruits headed to Norman.
Capel, a former Duke guard, was 27 when VCU made him the nation's youngest Division I head coach in 2002. He won at least 18 games in each of his four seasons at VCU before moving to Oklahoma, where he needed just three seasons to reach a regional final. He has won exactly twice as many games (148) as he has lost (74).

Of course, now he must prove he can lead Oklahoma to a similar level of success without Blake Griffin. Oklahoma went 16-15 in Capel's first season on the job, the year before Blake Griffin's arrival. The Sooners posted a 53-18 mark the past two seasons.

Griffin led the nation with 14.4 rebounds per game and ranked 11th in the nation with 22.7 points per game this season. His departure leaves Warren and guard Tony Crocker as the Sooners' only returning starters.

"Hopefully we learned how hard it is to get there, which teaches our guys how hard they have to work," Capel said. "A lot of what we were able to accomplish this past season was done during last summer. Our guys really, really worked at a high level this past summer, which put us in a position where we could have the kind of success that we had. Hopefully, this makes our guys hungrier to want to get back and beyond where we were [this] year."

Capel knows what Oklahoma is losing, but he also knows the guys who are coming in and the guys who are sticking around. He's eager to see how his team responds to the challenge.

"We'll be OK," Capel said.

Actually, even without Griffin, they may be even better than that.
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