OKLAHOMA CITY -- Willie Warren took six shots Saturday against Northern Colorado. He made two. He finished with four points. And though Oklahoma escaped with an 80-79 victory, the Sooners' star player did not leave the Lloyd Noble Center feeling well.
Warren never feels well when he takes only six shots.
This is not a new development.
He doesn't even deny it.
"In the [Northern] Colorado game, I only had about three or four plays called for me the whole game," Warren said Monday night after an 89-74 loss to UTEP. "I was frustrated. I was just wondering, 'Does he not trust me with the ball?' "
The he in that quote is Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel. Rest assured, he's earning his paycheck this season.
Not only is Capel having to figure out how to play without Blake Griffin, Taylor Griffin, Austin Johnson and Juan Patilla, he's having to figure out how to do it while starting two freshmen and catering to Warren, the future NBA Draft pick who has been equal parts talented and complicated for as long as anybody can remember. In fact, there are many schools, Texas being the most notable, that didn't seriously recruit Warren despite his obvious skillset because they decided the complicated parts outweighed the talented parts.
"That's one of the first things I heard when I moved to Oklahoma, that Willie had a reputation," Capel said. "But then we started recruiting him, and I got to know him, and I didn't see that side of him."
Last season, Capel seemed brilliant for ignoring that side. Warren helped OU get to the Elite Eight.
But now the Sooners are 8-4, struggling on both ends of the court, and that side of Warren has become an issue, so much so that Capel said, "I'm tired of trying to figure [Warren] out" after the squeaker against Northern Colorado.
Asked what he thought Capel meant by that comment, Warren stood here in a hallway at the Ford Center and said his coach was talking about the "funks" he gets in from time to time, mostly when he's not making shots or, even worse, taking shots. And though these admitted "funks" were not huge problems last season because Warren was surrounded by upperclassmen, the sophomore guard is now in a leadership role, and the "funks" can be devastating from both an individual and team standpoint.
|Willie Warren can become a better leader by finding a way to channel his frustrations. (US Presswire)|
You can't have the face of the program in a funk.
So Warren either has to change his approach or Capel has to overcompensate for it. And don't bother telling Warren that despite missing one game, he has still taken 28 more shots and 29 more free throws than any of his teammates, because that doesn't matter.
With Warren, perception is reality. Not only does he need to get plenty of touches, he needs to feel like he's getting plenty of touches and that the purpose of every possession is to make sure he gets plenty of touches. Again, it has been this way for as long as anybody can remember. And if you want to know why I personally like Warren, it's because he doesn't dispute any of this and is refreshingly candid when speaking about what he desires on the court.
"I would like to touch the ball on every possession," Warren said. "It's hard for me to feel involved if I'm not touching it."
Again, I think this is all rooted in the 8-4 record. If OU were 12-0, Warren wouldn't be complaining about touches, wouldn't be getting into "funks," and Capel's job would be a lot easier. But the four early losses -- to VCU, Houston, San Diego and UTEP -- have made the Sooners one of the nation's most disappointing teams (at least relative to preseason expectations), and outsiders are naturally wondering why.
The easiest person to blame is Warren.
The easiest thing to say is that he can't lead a team.
That's what some are saying, and Warren knows it. And though he does acknowledge he could "be a much better leader," it's also natural for a 20-year-old in a new role to try to deflect some of the criticism, which leads to him talking about how he's not getting the ball enough.
Perhaps I'm playing press row psychologist, but I think I'm right.
I think Warren has a lot on his shoulders.
I think it's getting to him.
"I think, in some ways, that he's a little bit embarrassed that we aren't as good right now as we were last year," Capel said. "I think maybe he wanted to be the face of the program and one of the faces of college basketball, and here we are 12 games into it and we're 8-4, and I think he might be a little embarrassed by that, because now people are looking at him. But that's part of being in a leadership spot. When things are good, they look at you. When things are bad, they look at you. When you are the face, everything is on you."
And that's how Warren will spend the rest of this season.
If things get turned around, he'll be heralded.
If not, he won't.
Either way, Warren and Capel must find common ground.
Until that happens, Oklahoma has no chance.