Oklahoma provides marquee matchup

It's taken him four years, but Alabama basketball coach Mark Gottfried finally has his program at a level where playing in marquee games is the way it's supposed to be.

Perhaps the largest, and certainly the most hyped, regular-season game of Gottfried's five-year career at the Capstone will be played against No. 3 Oklahoma Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Alabama-Oklahoma game, which is just one in the four-game, two-day Coaches vs. Cancer event, will be televised by ESPN2 and will start approximately 30 minutes after the first game of the night between Syracuse and Memphis.

Alabama's Player of the Year candidate, Erwin Dudley (Associated Press)

"This is the kind of game you want to have on your schedule, and that I've been trying to get," Gottfried said. "This is a great measuring stick early. We're playing a great team in Oklahoma. They are deserving of the recognition they're getting."

The Sooners, a Final Four participant from a year ago, start three senior guards and a dominating post player, justifying its preseason ranking.

Senior Hollis Price is the Sooners' top returnee. He averaged 16.5 points and 3.1 rebounds during Oklahoma's stellar season a year ago. Jabahri Brown, a 6-foot-10 junior forward, leads the squad in the paint, and will be leaned on heavily to carry the load inside.

"Jabahri Brown has a lot of experience," Gottfried said. "He's a tall player that can block shots."

Brown will have to pick up the slack left by outgoing senior Aaron McGhee, who led the Sooners attack in the paint, scoring 16.0 points and grabbing 7.7 rebounds a game. Though McGhee is the only significant player Oklahoma lost from a year ago, Gottfried still believes the Sooners are a different team with the substitution of a third guard in McGhee's place.

"What you're gonna find is every team is gonna be different year to year," Gottfried said. "Even though they made the Final Four, they're not the same team."

The three-guard lineup could cause problems for Alabama. In last year's season-ending loss to Kent State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Golden Flashes started three senior guards that controlled the pace of the game without turning the ball over. In addition to Oklahoma's experience in the backcourt, each one of its guards can shoot the ball efficiently from behind the three-point arc.

Earnest Shelton's availability and performance will be key. (GettyImages)

The 6-5 Ebi Ere averaged 14.6 points last year and shot 32.9 percent from three-point range while attempting over 200 threes. Point guard Quannas White led the team in three-point percentage last year at a 40.8 clip while averaging 7.6 points.

Then there's Price, the team's on-the-court general. In addition to leading the team in scoring last year, he shot a blistering 38.2 percent from three-point range. Gottfried expressed his concern of Oklahoma's three-point shooting, which will prove to be more effective since the NCAA declared the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic a non-exempt event, making the experimental three-point arc — which would have been moved back nine inches — non-existant.

"All of them can shoot the three," Gottfried said. "They've made a lot of three-point shots. All three can make shots. They're all quick. They can all create their own shots."

Alabama may be without the services of starting guard Earnest Shelton and sixth man Antoine Pettway for the Oklahoma game. Shelton (still recovering from a left foot injury he sustained in a Nov. 6 practice) and Pettway (right knee) are both listed as probable to play, but neither are expected to be 100 percent. Walk-on Jason Reese will have surgery this week on a broken nose he suffered in the same practice. He is out indefinitely.

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