Sweet 16: Arizona vs. Oklahoma

In what might be arguably the best game of the Sweet 16, Arizona and Oklahoma renew an old rivalry in the NCAA Tournament. The Sooners have won both of the previous meetings and are favored to do so again in San Jose. Will Arizona snap the Sooners' streak or will it be more of the same? A berth in the Elite Eight is on the line for the winner.

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No. 3 ARIZONA (24-9 overall, won six straight)

Eight-man rotation: (Season Stats):

PG-Jason Gardner, 5-10, 185 Jr. (20.5ppg, 4.6apg, 2spg, 43%FGs, 39% 3's)

SG-Salim Stoudamire, 6-1, 180 Fr. (13ppg, 2rpg, 45%FGs, 46% 3's, 90%FT)

SF-Luke Walton, 6-8, 245 Jr. (16ppg, 7.3rpg, 6.2apg, 2spg, 47%FGs)

PF-Rick Anderson, 6-9, 220 Jr. (12.5ppg, 7.3rpg, 49%FGs, 42% 3's)

C-Channing Frye, 6-11, 225 Fr. (9.5ppg, 6.3rpg, 1.5bpg, 59%FGs)

Will Bynum, 5-10, 185 Fr. SG (6.2ppg, 1.5apg)

Dennis Latimore, 6-8, 255 Fr. PF (2.0ppg, 2.6rpg, 43%FGs)

Isaiah Fox, 6-9, 265 Fr. F/C (4.3ppg, 4.0rpg, 47%FGs)

 

No. 2 OKLAHOMA (29-4 overall, won 10 straight)

Eight-man rotation: Season Stats:

PG-Quannas White, 6-1, 190 Jr. (7.9ppg, 4.7apg, 1.3spg, 46%FGs, 43% 3's)

SG-Hollis Price, 6-1, 165 Jr. (16.5ppg, 3.1rpg, 46%FGs, 37% 3's, 84%FT)

G-Ebi Ere, 6-5, 215 Jr. (14.5ppg, 5.8rpg, 1.8apg, 42%FGs, 33% 3's)

PF-Aaron McGhee, 6-8, 250 Sr. (15.7ppg, 7.8rpg, 45%FGs, 31% 3's, 82%FT)

C-Jabarhi Brown, 6-10, 210 Soph. (4.6ppg, 6.0rpg, 1.3spg, 1.5bpg, 49%FGs)

Jason Detrick, 6-5, 210 Jr. SG (9.5ppg, 3.5rpg, 41%FGs, 29% 3's)

Daryan Selvy, 6-6, 215 Sr. SF (6.6ppg, 4.7rpg, 1.7spg, 48%FGs, 33% 3's)

Johnnie Gilbert, 6-8, 230 Soph. PF (4.2ppg, 4.6rpg)

Breakdown

This just in: Oklahoma is good. Not only that, but the Sooners got screwed by being handed the West Region's No. 2 seed while overrated Cincinnati received the top seed. By the way, think the Bearcats will be watching the game on Thursday night from home? Me too.

Oklahoma was clearly more deserving of the No. 1 seeding than Cincy was, but all's well that ends well, or so they say. Oklahoma is still alive and that "other" top seed is gearing up for recruiting season.

The Sooners beat two other number one seeds during their regular-season run to 24 wins and the Big XII tournament championship. Both Maryland (by 16 in Norman) and Kansas (by nine) went down at the hands of Oklahoma's attacking defense and aggressive rebounding game. Arizona also beat Maryland, but on a neutral court to begin the year. The impressive thing for OU came in beating Kansas. I've not seen a better team than the Jayhawks all year (Duke be damned) but Oklahoma took them apart just two weeks ago.

If your team can beat Kansas, consider yourselves Final Four material.

So, now we know what Oklahoma has done and what it is capable of doing. The interesting part comes in examining just HOW it is the Sooners do it.

What are Oklahoma's strengths?

Three parts of the game that Oklahoma does as well as any team in America are rebounding, playing aggressive defense and getting the ball to its productive wing trio for points. We'll start on the glass.

I. The Sooners have five players that average more than 4.4 rebounds per game. Not bad considering that the roster is stocked with exactly one person over 6-8. It's Oklahoma's athletic wings that make rebounding such a strength for the team.

In Ebi Ere (6-5), Jason Detrick (6-5) and Daryan Selvy (6-6) the Sooners boast three wings that can rebound as well or better than most teams' power forwards. If there is a long rebound to be had, expect one of these three guys to come up with it. Can anyone say, "hello, Mike Schwertley"?

The best player on the team is senior power forward Aaron McGhee, a load if there ever was one. McGhee is a 250-pound horse: a strong and athletic machine who hits the glass with reckless abandon.

*How Arizona Fares: For Arizona to counter McGhee's combination of strength and scoring ability it will have to deploy Luke Walton on defense. Walton is just as big and strong and, Walton's a more intelligent player as well. Walton has faced guys similar to McGhee, and they were as good or better: USC's Sam Clancy and former teammate Michael Wright.

II. Oklahoma plays an aggressive man-to-man defense most of the time, constantly attacking the passing lanes, forcing the action on the ballhandler and denying the entry pass inside to opposing teams' big men. It's not quite the type of hellacious defense that Arkansas used to throw out in the mid-90's, but it's intimidating to most teams they face.

Whether Arizona will be intimidated or not is anyone's guess, but after playing USC three times, ASU twice, UConn, Illinois, Florida, Maryland, Michigan State, Kansas, Oregon twice and UCLA twice, one would have to doubt that very little puts a scare into the Wildcats.

The Sooners will switch to a 2-3 zone from time to time, as they did against Xavier in their second round win. When that happens, they are daring you to beat them by making outside shots. Musketeer guard Romain Sato hit a couple of 25-footers in the middle of the second half and the Sooners went back to its man defense.

*How Arizona Fares: The key to beating any good defense is not to help it and that means keeping turnovers to a minimum. Walton and Jason Gardner have to be sure-handed against the Sooners. The Wildcats must also get a balanced offensive game from their frontline of Walton, Ricky Anderson and Channing Frye, and their backcourt rotation of Gardner, Salim Stoudamire and Will Bynum. Hitting a high percentage of three-point attempts would give Arizona a much easier time against the Sooner defense.

III. Ere, Detrick and Selvy join shooting guard Hollis Price to form what might be America's best perimeter quartet in terms of athleticism and scoring ability.

Ere is the three-point threat who also has a nice mid-range game and hits the glass hard. In short, he has proven why he was a JC All-American last year. He's just good.

Fellow JC-transfer Jason Detrick is very similar to Ere except that he can't shoot quite as well. But because he is a 6-5 wing, he'll present match-up problems for either Salim Stoudamire or Will Bynum when they are playing the two spot against him defensively. Once again, can you say "Mike Schwertley"?

And if that twosome isn't enough size and athleticism for Arizona to handle, the Sooners can still pile it on with their best athlete, Daryan Selvy. If you haven't seen him play yet, trust me, you'll remember him after this game. He is a human pogo stick with a one-track mind and all he sees are dunk opportunities off of offensive rebounds.

So what it comes down to is Oklahoma having three almost interchangeable wings on the perimeter. Ere is the shooter, Detrick is the match-up problem and Selvy is the athlete with the kangaroo legs.

How Arizona Fares: Hopefully Mike Schwertley is in shape because he's going to be a necessary ingredient to the Wildcats' success against this wing onslaught from Oklahoma. Stoudamire and Bynum MUST make the open shots they get and they need to stay out of foul trouble while playing intense defense. They are at a size disadvantage, but who plays harder than Salim Stoudamire? It's a short list.

What Weaknesses do the Sooners Have?

Not many. I won't even bother going into detail about some of OU's shortcomings like I did their strengths. I'll list my opinions on what they could be better at instead. Here's the (again, it's a short list).

I. Sophomore center Jabarhi Brown (6-10, 210) isn't anything to worry about on the offensive side. He doesn't score or create his own shot down low like Channing Frye does. He's a good shot blocker and a defensive presence but he's like Channing was BEFORE he went up to Oregon for those breakout games in late December. In fact, during the conference season, Brown only attempted six free throws. That should say something about his aggression, or lack thereof.

II. Lack of depth on the frontline. The Sooners play pretty much three "true" big men: McGhee, Brown and reserve power forward Johnnie Gilbert. Compare that to Arizona's rotation of Walton, Anderson, Frye, Fox and Latimore and it's easy to see where the advantage lies. Where most people see an edge for Oklahoma in the frontcourt with McGhee, I see one guy against a whole bunch of talented and young Wildcat big men.

III. Arizona and (particularly) Lute Olson have been here before. Olson, Gardner and Walton are not even a year removed from playing for the national championship. Their big game NCAA Tournament experience is invaluable in a game like this. Oklahoma is at a disadvantage here because it has two JC-transfers who have never played in a game like this and an entire roster (and coaching staff) that has never been past this point.

Projection:

Arizona's schedule was designed exactly for a game like this. The Cats have been there, done that, so-to-speak, and can literally treat this like any other game. The difficulty level is on par with that of a road game against USC, which is a team that Oklahoma STRONGLY resembles.

McGhee and Hollis Price are going to be tough to contain, and you can bet that one of the three Sooner wings will have a good game too. The difference, as it has been so many times this season, will be two things: Jason Gardner and Luke Walton.

Oklahoma simply cannot match-up with those two guys, whereas Arizona can match-up well with Oklahoma's best players. Walton will be the driving force for most of the game but Gardner will win it.

Arizona wins and continues the surreal season that has been constructed by Gandalf the Grey, er, Lute Olson.

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