Who would have thought after Oklahoma's 67-55 loss to Michigan State in East Lansing on Nov. 19, that Aaron McGhee would be the go-to-guy and perhaps the key in their Sweet 16 matchup with Arizona Thursday night in San Jose?
On that day McGhee was a no-show, recording career lows as a Sooner with four points and zero rebounds.
Back on Jan. 19, McGhee continued his struggles against big-time opponents going 1-for-8 from the field while finishing with just six points and two rebounds in the Sooners' 74-67 loss to Kansas in Lawrence.
It wasn't the first no-show McGhee had pulled to that point in the young season, but it was the last.
The 6-8 senior from Aurora, Ill. did bounce back with a 16-point, 11-rebound effort against Maryland in December, but it wasn't until after the Kansas game that McGhee turned it up a notch.
"When you come to the program, you have to learn things," said McGhee, who has improved his scoring and rebounding numbers five notches in each category from a year ago. "Coach Sampson makes boys into men."
"I wanted him to be a great player and a great rebounder," said Sampson. "Great players get rebounds and play good defense."
And since that day in Lawrence, McGhee has done just that and is finally becoming the man Sampson thought he would be coming out of junior college. In Oklahoma's 17 games since the loss at Kansas, McGhee has ripped off nine double-doubles and has been the Sooners' leading scorer and rebounder in that stretch (18.1 points and 9.4 rebounds).
Illinois-Chicago Head Coach Jimmy Collins got to see McGhee's act in Dallas, and came away impressed after he torched the flames for 26 points and 12 rebounds.
"Aaron wasn't highly recruited in high school, he was a little overweight. He didn't put forth the effort that it requires to be an outstanding player.," said Collins on McGhee, who he scouted in high school.
"Since that time, he's gotten into Oklahoma's program and decided that he wanted to be a pro. Make no mistake about it - he is that, he is a pro. He's not just an inside player. He plays outside. He makes passes, plays sound defense. He is a professional basketball player, and that's come through hard work."
"Aaron has played well for a long time," said Oklahoma Head Coach Kelvin Sampson after McGhee's 25-point outburst against Xavier. "His team gives him a lot of confidence. They go to him, and that gives him a lot of confidence."
Indeed, the Sooners have gone to McGhee, , who is averaging 25.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in OU's first two NCAA tournament games. And if Oklahoma wants to go to the Elite Eight, they'll need to go to McGhee against an Arizona team that has given up some big numbers against other outstanding scoring post players this season.
Three of the Wildcats four-man post rotation are true freshmen, and they have had their struggles this season guarding inside scorers like McGhee.
USC forward Sam Clancy, a similar player to McGhee in size and stature, single-handedly torched the Wildcats' interior defense, averaging 23.3 points and nine boards in the teams three meetings this season.
Kansas' Drew Gooden went for 23 points and 15 boards against Arizona earlier in the season and UCLA center Dan Gadzuric also feasted on the young ‘Cats while averaging 16.5 points and 11 rebounds in two games.
"I don't watch a lot of college basketball, but everyone seems to be talking about Sam Clancy from USC being a top draft pick. Well, I think Aaron McGhee is better than him," said Iowa State Head Coach Larry Eustachy." "He has improved so much from last year and has come a long way. That guy is just a pro."
"For the last couple months, he has been unstoppable," said Oklahoma center Jabahri Brown of McGhee. "I'm glad he's on my team."
Generally, when McGhee struggles the Sooners struggle. With the exception of Oklahoma's 79-72 overtime loss in Stillwater this season where McGhee had 27 points and 11 rebounds, the senior's performance has been a good measuring stick for OU's success. In losses to Michigan State, Kansas and Texas Tech, McGhee was a combined 8-of-33 from the field. Hardly "unstoppable" numbers.
But that was the the old McGhee. If the "unstoppable" McGhee shows up Thursday night in San Jose, it probably means the Sooners are are headed to the Elite Eight and just one win away from the Final Four. Who would have thought that on Nov. 19?
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