Big 12 Powers set to collide Sunday in Norman

Hollis Price leads No. 5 Oklahoma into Sunday's Big 12 showdown against No. 6 Kansas and Nick Collison. Oklahoma won the last meeting between the two schools in last year's Big 12 Tournament Champioship game, 64-55. Tip-off is set for 3PM Sunday at the Lloyd Noble Center and will be broadcast nationally on CBS.

NORMAN - Sunday's game between Oklahoma and Kansas will be the biggest home game for the Sooners since Kelvin Sampson set foot on campus.

The Sooners have had some great teams over the past few years, but a regular-season conference championship has always eluded their grasp. A victory over the Jayhawks on Sunday will put Oklahoma in the driver's seat on the road to their first regular-season championship since 1989. It will not be easy.

This game has so many underlying storylines: the fast paced Jayhawks against the tenacious Sooner defenders, Hollis Price versus Kirk Hinrich, Kevin Bookout versus Nick Collison, but perhaps most intriguing of all, the up and coming Sooners against the established Big 12 flagship Jayhawks.

"Kansas has been the standard for our conference for so long," said OU coach Kelvin Sampson. "They've been the best basketball program over the years and they've set the standard. You have to give a lot of credit to Kansas for being a great program and being able to do it every year."

Sampson's first two squads at OU beat Kansas in Norman, 76-73 in '95 and 85-79 in '96. Since then, Oklahoma is 0-6 against KU in the regular season. In another interesting note, Kansas was the last team to beat OU in Norman, 69-61 on January 13, 2001. The Sooners have played 35 games at Lloyd Noble since then, and they've won them all.

"I don't think I have to mention (the streak). I think our players know about it," said Kansas coach Roy Williams. "I think we'll talk about Oklahoma's team. We've won down there. That building has never beaten us, but those players on the court is what we're going to talk about.

"They have a wonderful following and all that, but what wins those games is the guys between the lines. I'm going to talk to my team about the players."

The players. Certain areas of personnel favor Oklahoma while other areas favor the Jayhawks.

Point guard favors Oklahoma, but not by much. Aaron Miles has the bigger numbers that most look for in a point guard — 7.2 assists a game—but where he gets KU in trouble is turnovers. Miles averages 3.3 turnovers a game, and that is why Quannas White trumps him. White, OU's most important player according to Kelvin Sampson, is the brain of the Oklahoma operation. While his assists per game average — 3.8 —i s dwarfed by Miles's numbers, White averages only 1.2 turnovers per game, giving him an assist to turnover ratio of over 3.0. That is fabulous, and that is why White has the upper hand in this match-up.

The match-up at shooting guard will be as hotly contested as any duel seen on the collegiate level this year. Hollis Price, the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, against Kirk Hinrich, one of the few contenders, other than Price, for that prestigious award. Both players are Naismith finalists, and both players are the pulse of their team. Hinrich averages 17.8 points a game while Price chimes in with 19.3 per contest. Both players are extremely quick, and both can fire up the three-pointer from anywhere on the court. No need to over-analyze these two, it's a push, each player will get his points one way or another. Price certainly has the admiration and respect of KU coach Roy Williams.

"I admire (Price) as much as anybody in the league and I'd say he's probably in my top two or three favorite players I've ever coached against in this league," Williams said. "He plays the kind of basketball that, when you watch him play, it looks like he enjoys playing, and he's very gifted. He's a really tough kid. He's been involved in a lot of wins in those four years."

The wing, comprised of De'Angelo Alexander for OU with Ebi Ere recently coming off the bench and Keith Langford for Kansas, is a hot and cold source for both teams. Ere and Langford can go for 25 points on one night and completely vanish during the next contest. Alexander is the reason the Sooners have the advantage at the "3".

"De'Angelo Alexander coming off the bench for them has been huge," Williams said.

What Langford lacks on the court, he more than makes up for in confidence within his own game and his teammates. He's even gone so far as to suggest that the nerves in Sunday's showdown will reside with the home team.

"I don't think the pressure is on us right now," Langford said. "We have just one conference loss that we shouldn't have, but we have it and everyone else has been hit with two or three losses. I think that the pressure is on the other teams to try and catch up and beat us. I think the pressure is more on them in Norman on Sunday."

The area where KU truly holds a large advantage is in the frontcourt.

Kevin Bookout has come on strong, and one cannot discount the defensive havoc that Jabahri Brown can wreak, but those two will have their hands full with Nick Collison and the gelatin-shouldered Wayne Simien. Simien, KU's big man in the middle, recently returned from a dislocated shoulder that sidelined him for 11 games.

"The main thing is getting prepared for Kansas, they're so good inside," Sampson said. Getting Simien back really helps them."

What Simien needs to watch out for is the physical presence of OU's big men. Bookout, Johnnie Gilbert and Jozsef Szendrei are fearless, and they will not step down from anybody. Simien will have to play a smart, finesse-filled game in order for his shoulder to go un-tweaked. Still, despite Simien's arm of Jello, the advantage in the frontcourt rests at the feet of the Jayhawks.

The bench is another area where the Sooners hold the advantage. The starting five of Kansas can play with anybody, the nation saw that during the first half of the Arizona game, but their lack of a bench can turn the starter's legs into noodles.

OU's nine-man rotation has the upper hand here, even though Bryant Nash and Michael Lee have helped bridge the gap in this particular area for the Jayhawks.

In a game of this magnitude, anything can happen. An unsung hero may grasp his 15 minutes of fame or a familiar name may toss his hat into the conference player of the year race. Roy Williams thinks that OU is playing the best basketball in the league right now. Kelvin Sampson says that every team in the Big 12 strives to be the kind of program that Kansas is. Something will give this Sunday.

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