Full-Court Press: Michigan State

Bahamian battle at center stage as Sooners and Spartans battle in Sweet 16

Sooners Illustrated will present three things to watch before every men’s basketball game during the 2014-15 season.

No. 7 Michigan State (25-11) vs. No. 3 Oklahoma (24-10)

When: 9 p.m. CST

TV/Radio: TBS/107.7 FM(OKC); 1430 AM (Tulsa)

Series: Michigan State, 5-3

Freeport vs. Nassau – Mainland edition

There are still scratch marks on Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield’s arms from tough games of one-on-one against childhood friend Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn. Those are the hard times that helped forge two hard-working boys into basketball players capable of playing the Sweet 16.

There are also the late-night stories and long bus rides the two shared at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas that helped develop a friendship that will persist through Friday night’s matchup between Michigan State and Oklahoma.

Long-time friends and long-time competitors: Only one gets a ticket to the Sweet 16.

“We talked about being in the Sweet 16,” Hield said. “One is going to go to the Elite Eight. One of our dreams is going to get fulfilled. After that, we’ll get a chance to go to the Final Four.”

The two consider each other “brothers” – Hield two years Nairn’s senior. Hield tried to convince Nairn to join him at Oklahoma before Tum Tum, who starts at point guard for the Spartans, decide that Michigan State was the best place for him.

Only once they made it to Sunrise Christian did they meet, Hield as a senior and Nairn as a 16-year-old sophomore and start developing a bond.

“He basically took me under his wing with both of us being from the Bahamas,” said Nairn, whose nickname comes from the move “3 Ninjas.” “He was our best player.”

The friendship was forged in the United States, but the two brought over the storied Bahamian rivalry – Freeport vs. Nassau. Nairn was born in Nassau while Hield hails from the main island of the Grand Bahamas. That’s a rivalry that will never die and likely will play out on the court inside the Carrier Dome at some point.

No holding back when it does.

“I’m a confident player. I’ll just keep going. I told him, ‘I’m gonna bust him,’” said Hield, who first asked to see Nairn when he came out of oral surgery in high school. “I’m going to go at him. I already told him, I’m not going to shy away. I’m going to go at him.”

Nairn admitted that Hield has won more of the one-on-one battles between the two, who are far more similar than different. Both are fast-talkers, although Hield has that battle won as well. Both are enigmatic personalities, filled with joy and fun to be around. Rough backgrounds and hard work helped them even more so into one common personality.

They both love to trash talk, too.

“He’s always talking and I’m always talking. He’s loud and I’m loud. He’s full of life and I’m the same way,” Nairn said. “I think when we met each other that helped us to mesh so well. We did everything together. We would go to the movies together — anything besides basketball. We enjoyed life. . . .That’s how close we were. We were just two kids from the Bahamas trying to make a difference.”

Sooner thriving inside

Looking at film, Oklahoma forward D.J. Bennett noticed something about Michigan State. The Spartans are almost an exact replica of the Sooners – a team that likes to get out and run, with mobile, athletic bigs.

Something else it looks like the No. 7 Spartans like to do is rebound, better than almost any other school in the country.

It’ll be up to the entire Oklahoma roster to keep Michigan State off the glass.

“We know the bigs are going to take care of their responsibilities,” Oklahoma guard Frank Booker said. “As guards, we know if there is an opening that not being boxed out, we have to talk that responsibility and box out. . . . We know that this game is going to come down to defensive rebounding.”

Bennett is playing his best basketball of the season, and starting forward TaShawn Thomas has improved his points and rebounds per game since the start of the NCAA Tournament.

“Everything that we do on the floor matters, no matter who we have on the floor,” Bennett said. “. . . It helps for us to win. We all have to keep doing that, no matter what our role is.”

Michigan State won’t give Oklahoma many second chances – defending at 31.6 percent from the field and 19.4 percent from behind the 3-point arc while hauling down a Big Ten-best rebounding margin (+6) during the season.

The Spartans are averaging a plus-7.5 margin during the NCAA Tournament, but freshman forward Khadeem Lattin sees one thing that the Sooners could expose.

“They don’t move like us,” he said. “They don’t move as well as Ryan or Tay or me or DJ. They’re strong and sturdy. We’re quick, strong and shifty. That’s definitely going to help.”

Dealing with depth perception

The worst three-game shooting stretch of the season for Oklahoma came when the Sooners traveled to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament.

Chalk it up to an run of strong early-season defenses or maybe the unique gym in which they played.

The Sooners will play in another rare setting Friday night inside the Carrier Dome, the University of Syracuse’s football field that doubles as a basketball arena with high-rises on either end of the court.

Depth perception can play a major role in such a cavernous place. Thomas, who grew up just miles away from the Houston Astrodome, said the team has been shooting to get comfortable with the arena.

Hield has a much easier explanation for how to handle the new setting.

“You just have to go make plays. No matter what, you have to make plays,” Hield said. “That’s what you do. If you’re a basketball player, you play in parks, you play in gyms. No matter the setting, you have to go out there and make shots. If you make shots, everything will be alright. As soon as you stop making shots, everybody says it’s the depth. Nah, you have to go out there and make shots.”

Sooners Illustrated Top Stories