Q: Thirty-win seasons don't occur every year. What will you always remember about last season?
A: "Now that the season's been over with for a while, you have a chance to digest everything. I certainly appreciate everything more now than I did as we were going through it. We had a really good team. To win 30 games and get to within one game of the Final Four, it was special. We had some special individual performances by Blake (Griffin) that obviously stand out, but Willie Warren had an amazing freshman year for us, too. Taylor Griffin and Austin Johnson had really, really good senior years. The things I'll remember? I'll remember our team celebrating after we won the NIT Season Tip-Off. I'll remember how this group came together in the midst of some adverse times toward the end of our conference season and was able to pull it back together as we headed into the NCAA Tournament. We were playing some of our best basketball at that time, so I'm really proud of that."
I think Willie has a chance to be really good. I've heard and I've read that he played really well at LeBron's camp. I've even heard he may have been the best college player there. The thing that I'm most pleased with is that everyone I've talked to mentioned how much he's grown and matured.
The strength of the team seems to lie in the backcourt. What excites you about your guards?
"That's where we have some experience. Tony Crocker is the most experienced, and then we have Cade Davis and Willie Warren. Those three played integral roles for us last year. Crock started every game and Willie started all but two, and Cade played really well for us. We need those three to step up as leaders. We'll see how Ray Willis has matured as a player and how he's grown. He'll certainly have an opportunity. I think we've added some really good guards in Tommy Mason-Griffin and Steven Pledger. So we feel really good about our perimeter because of the mix of veterans and new talented guys who can hopefully provide more firepower."
Would you rather have a great frontcourt or a great backcourt?
"I'd like to have both. You often hear that you win with guards, and I agree with that. But last year we showed that you can win with a really good frontcourt. I do think guards control the game more, especially offensively. If you have guards who can also get after it defensively, I'd prefer to have the stronger backcourt. I think we have some guys with the ability to do those things. We're going to have to teach them how to do them -- especially getting after it on the defensive end. But as a former guard, I'd probably have to choose the backcourt."
Will the makeup of this team allow you to get up and down the court a little bit faster?
"It could, possibly. I thought we played at a pretty good tempo last year. Until I'm actually able to get out on the floor with them, it's hard to say. Will we ever be a run-and-gun team? I don't know if that's really my style. I want to run and get easy opportunities, but will we ever be a team that runs and shoots the first eight or 10 seconds down the floor? I don't know.
"But I certainly think that we have a chance to have a really strong backcourt. We'll be able to put three guys on the floor who can dribble, pass and shoot; players who can create. Willie Warren can create. We think that's something that Tommy Mason-Griffin brings us that we haven't had at point guard -- a guy who can really generate opportunities off the bounce. Hopefully Tony Crocker has been working on his ball handling. If so, that can allow us to use him that way. Same thing with Cade Davis. He's never going to break you down off the dribble, but he can use one or two dribbles to help him get to a spot and get his shot off. Ray Willis is a kid who has an opportunity to be good off the bounce, it's just a matter of whether he's gotten strong enough to survive getting bumped. So our pace probably could quicken a little bit, but I won't know until practice starts."
Do you foresee Willie Warren stepping forward during his sophomore season like Blake Griffin did and becoming a national-player-of-the-year candidate?
"I think Willie has a chance to be really good. I've heard and I've read that he played really well at LeBron's camp. I've even heard he may have been the best college player there. The thing that I'm most pleased with is that everyone I've talked to mentioned how much he's grown and matured. That's part of the process and one of the great things that happens to a young man in college -- you grow up. I think all of the experiences of being around Blake last year and watching how he handled everything have helped Willie. They've developed a good friendship and Blake has helped tutor Willie and has talked to him about some things. Willie's a smart guy and I've heard some really good things about him this summer. We all know what he can do as a player, but we need a leader on this team. If he's been approaching this summer the right way then he has a chance to step up and earn the right to be a leader."
In what areas do you most want to see Willie improve?
"I'd like to see him be more aggressive at times, and I think he'll be that way. I thought at times last year he deferred. This year I don't think we'll have that problem. I'd like to see him get better defensively. The thing Willie's going to have to understand -- and I've talked to him about this -- is that he's going to be a marked man now. And so his preparation has to be that much better than it was last year. Last year he was the second guy on the other team's scouting report. This year he'll be the first guy.
"I'd like to see him rebound better. With his size, strength and athleticism, he should be getting four or five boards a game. If he does that we can immediately start our break -- there doesn't have to be an outlet pass. So those are the areas we'll look for improvement from him."
The team returns only 29 percent of its rebounding from last season. Is that a concern?
"It's a major concern; probably as big as any I have. I think we have some guys who can score. But rebounding is the major concern. Between Blake and Taylor last year, you're talking over 20 rebounds a game. It's going to present a huge opportunity for players to step up, and it's a way that they can earn playing time. So many people focus on scoring. Well, we're going to need some guys to really step up and man the boards for us. Our two returning big men -- Ryan Wright and Orlando Allen -- or some of our new guys like Tiny Gallon or Andrew Fitzgerald have a chance to do that. A guy like Tony Crocker has to be a better rebounder for us. Willie Warren has to rebound better. We're going to have to gang rebound this year."
Last year was the first time that OU has had two McDonald's All-Americans on the same team. Now there are three on the squad for 2009-10. What has allowed you to have so much success on the recruiting trail?
"The first thing is I have a really, really good staff. All three of my assistants will be -- or should be -- head coaches soon. Their experience, their knowledge and their connections have enabled us to get in on some good players. The second thing is what the University of Oklahoma has to offer as far as a university, a community, an athletics department and a basketball program. If you look at our basketball program over the past 25 years, it's been a top-15 national program. That's a testament to everyone who's played and coached here. It also helps when you're able to get a guy like Blake Griffin. He's the guy who's kind of made it cool to come here during my time. Then a guy like Willie Warren becomes interested to play with Blake. When Willie got here you have to think that that opened the eyes of guys like Tommy Mason-Griffin and Tiny Gallon. We were able to get them here on campus and they fell in love with what they saw. So I think it's a combination of all of those things."
What tactics will you use to relieve some of the pressure off Tiny Gallon in stepping in for Blake Griffin?
"Well I hope there won't be a lot of pressure, but realistically, from the outside, there will be expectations for Tiny. I've told him that there will never be another Blake Griffin -- not at the University of Oklahoma, not in college basketball. Blake is one of those true, unique talents that come along just every so often. I think people will understand that even more once Blake starts doing some things at the next level. But, in his own right, Tiny's very, very talented. The big thing is getting him to understand that who he is is pretty good. He doesn't need to emulate anyone else, he just needs to be the best Tiny Gallon he can be."
What does Jozsef Szendrei bring to the table as your new strength and conditioning coach?
"He's been great. One of the things that I like about Yo-Yo is that he wore the Oklahoma jersey. That's important. Sometimes -- and I know this from playing at a school with great tradition -- it means a little bit more to the guys who've worn the jersey. When I was going through the hiring process, I didn't think there was a candidate who'd have more pride in his job than Yo-Yo. He has a lot of ownership in this program because he wore that uniform with pride. On top of that, he's very knowledgeable about what he does and he has a passion for it. He wants to do anything he can to help the OU men's basketball program.
"He understands his role and is probably one of the most positive people I've ever met in my life. I've known him since I got to OU and I don't think I've ever seen him in a bad mood. You can't help but get a jolt of energy from him when you're around him. That was something I was really looking for when I started the hiring process."
How do you break down the Big 12 this year?
"I talked to some Big 12 coaches out on the road recruiting and I know a lot of us feel like our league is going to be even better than it was last year. And last year, I think from top to bottom we were right there with any other league. I think Kansas will be better than it was last year, and it was really good. Texas has the chance to be better and it was a very good basketball team. I think Iowa State will probably be a better basketball team. They have one of the premier players in the country returning in Craig Brackins.
"Then you look at Texas A&M -- it's going to be a better team with three starters back and two freshmen who played really well last year in Dash Harris and David Loubeau. Oklahoma State has another one of the premier players in the country in James Anderson. I think Colorado will be better and I think Kansas State will be improved and right in the thick of things.
"We lost a lot and so did Missouri. But Missouri's style of play and the guys that do return -- especially in the backcourt -- will keep it in the midst of the race. Doc Sadler at Nebraska is one of the best coaches in the country. He's got some good players back and some more that are new or sat out last year. I think it's going to be a really, really good year. We have some tremendous players coming back and I think we signed more top-100 national recruits than any other league. I think that says a lot."
Does the Big 12 have the chance to be the best league in the country?
"I think it can be. In fact, I thought we were last year. The only conference you could maybe say was better last year was the Big East. And everyone I've talked to thinks we'll be better than we were last year, so I do think we could be the best league in the country. We'll have two preseason top-five teams. Kansas will be ranked No. 1 and Texas will be in the top five. Then there are some more who will be preseason top-25 teams. When you look at the depth of our league and the quality of players, coaches and venues, it's hard to win -- especially on the road. I think we're going to be the best conference in the country this year."
(courtesy SoonerSports.com and Oklahoma SID)