After just one year as Oklahoma's secondary threat, Willie Warren's name started popping up on first-team All-America lists and among preseason player of the year candidates.
It was no mistake.
Warren was the No. 2 threat last season … behind Blake Griffin, the NBA's top draft pick. Warren was a likely first-round pick himself last summer, oozing with scoring potential before he decided to stick around for another season.
Partly because of his return, the Sooners were ranked No. 17 in the AP preseason Top 25.
But Warren and his teammates needed time. Like Arizona, its opponent in tonight's Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series matchup, Oklahoma (4-3) is retooling its offense around returning players forced into new roles and new players needed to contribute immediately.
The Sooners lost twice at the Great Alaska Shootout last month, to San Diego and Houston. Earlier, VCU handed coach Jeff Capel a loss in his return to the school he rode to coaching fame. Oklahoma had Warren and two McDonald's All-American freshmen in center Tiny Gallon and guard Tommy Mason-Griffin, but it did not have chemistry.
"We still have high expectations," Capel said. "We always have high expectations. But some of those outside expectations at the beginning were a little too much.
"I understood them - anytime you have a guy like Willie coming back and the recruiting class we had come in, that's going to happen. But the recruiting class is a question mark. You never understand how quickly those guys are going to adjust."
Capel also said he didn't think people realized what the Sooners lost in Taylor Griffin, Blake's brother, and point guard Austin Johnson.
Same with Warren.
Johnson "was a floor general in the sense that he always knows what to do," Warren said. "Blake was a huge presence."
This season, Warren is the presence whom defenses are watching, and the adjustment hasn't been easy. Warren is averaging 19.2 points a game but shooting just 22.2 percent from three-point range and grabbing only 3.0 rebounds a game.
"It's been a different thing" for Warren," Capel said. "Last year, you couldn't guard Blake one on one. So the rest of our guys were basically being guarded by three guys. That makes it easier for everyone."
After deferring at times early last year, Warren is also being asked to lead.
"You can't really prepare for leadership," Capel said. "You just have to be a leader on the fly. Willie had some great examples watching Blake and watching Taylor."
Warren's adjustment so far has included going 0 for 8 from three-point range in the loss at VCU, then scoring a total of 55 points in the Sooners' first two Great Alaska Shootout games, watching as Mason-Griffin and Gallon were kept out of the starting lineup against their hometown school, Houston, in the second game.
"Coach Capel, after that two-game losing streak (VCU and San Diego) was trying to do anything to get the team motivated," Warren said. "We have a lot of egos on our team and he was just showing he's going to limit it - if you're going to show up late for stuff, then you're not playing."
Then it was Warren's turn to suffer, as he was benched for the fifth-place game against Nicholls State in Anchorage. Warren said he was sick and missed a practice before the Nicholls State game, and Capel said his policy has been to keep out players who don't practice.
Finally, in Oklahoma's 67-47 win over Arkansas on Wednesday, it began to really come together. Defensively, the Sooners held the Razorbacks to just 37 percent shooting. Offensively, they had four players score in double figures, while versatile forward Tony Crocker had 16 rebounds.
Warren, meanwhile, took only four shots from the field but went to the free-throw line 11 times and dished four assists.
It's the kind of all-around effort the Sooners will continue to need.
"I have to be more of a leader this year and I'm still working on that," Warren said. "Against Arkansas, I got everybody involved. … It was the first step in being the new team we're talking about being."