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January 20, 2009Since the season began, compliments to the Oklahoma basketball team have been offered with a grain of salt.
Oklahoma is a great team, but their guard play will cost them a few games.
Oklahoma will have a great year, but their lack of bench depth will come back and bite 'em.
That was a great win by the Sooners, but if Blake Griffin finds himself in foul trouble: game over for OU.
Big victory, but free throw shooting is going to cost this team down the line.
Oklahoma has played great at home, but they are going to drop some road games they should win.
And now, as the Sooners prepare for their fourth conference game of the season, they remain undefeated in conference play.
They are 5-0 against the RPI top 50, which is the best record in the country.
The Sooners have no bad losses. They have wins over Utah, Davidson, UAB, Purdue and Texas. And, oh yeah, they have 17 wins to measure next to one loss.
Yet, the talk is not about the Sooners best start since 1986. It is not about the strong resume Oklahoma has already constructed for their March Madness Selection Day seeding.
The talk is about what will keep Oklahoma from being conference champions. The talk is about what will stop Oklahoma from being a Final Four squad.
While debates continue about whether the Sooners can survive without Blake Griffin. Or whether they can win on the road, find some bench depth, or develop "good enough" guard play; Oklahoma is winning.
"Everyone wants to make a big deal about bench and starters playing x amount of minutes," Oklahoma head coach Jeff Capel said following the Sooners victory over Texas in Norman. "We're trying to win games. Our starters are capable of playing 40 minutes a game."
They may not play 40 minutes, but the starting five has all played over 30 minutes since conference play began. All but one, that is.
Those poor Sooners, with no guard play and no bench, went to College Station this past weekend and left victorious.
Yet it was not the win that was surprising. It was the way Oklahoma attained the victory.
Blake Griffin only played 26 minutes. The Sooner Nightmare, right? Hostile environment on the road. No bench. No guard play. No Blake.
No nightmare. No crumbling under pressure. No ineptness.
It may be only fitting that the most criticized Sooner of all, Austin Johnson, was the one to prove the critics wrong. His 19 points and seven assists led Oklahoma to an impressive, steady victory against Texas A&M at ruckus Reed Arena in College Station.
The defense of Ryan Wright off of the bench was especially crucial in Oklahoma's victory.
Cade Davis came off of the bench to hit a key three-pointer when the Aggies were seizing momentum in the second half.
The bench came up big for the Sooners.
And the guard play? Oklahoma has had tremendous outputs from the guard position this season.
Tony Crocker delivered a career-high 26 against VCU. Willie Warren kept Oklahoma alive at Arkansas with a career-high 35 points. Austin Johnson leads the Big XII in assist-to-turnover ratio and has led the Sooners to two consecutive victories.
All three guards scored in double digits in the Sooners victory over Texas.
Oklahoma is shooting 41.9% from three-point range since conference play began.
They are shooting 74.5% from the free throw line over the past two games.
They pulled out a tough road win with Blake Griffin on the bench in College Station.
The "dreaded" OU bench has been used many times and has yet to be a problem this season.
Is Oklahoma perfect? No. Are they the best team in the country? Probably not.
Whether they are Final Four front-runners or just another very good team will be decided in two months. But today Oklahoma is playing as well as any team in the country.
Most importantly, their strengths far outweigh their weaknesses.
Guard play has continued to improve. Their bench has continued to improve. Their shooting, from the perimeter and the free throw line, has continued to improve.
However, we may have to wait for this team to be perfect before they receive the accolades they deserve.
This team wins with talent, effort, and teamwork. That combination will be tough for any team to defeat.
With all of the negative things said about the 2008-09 Oklahoma basketball team there are two facts that no critic can overlook.
They are a Final Four contender and the road to the Big XII Championship is going to pass through Norman.
And that's a compliment that has no grain of salt attached.