Don't overlook Oklahoma in Final 4

Maryland, Kansas rank as real heavyweights, but Sooners may be strongest

NCAA Tournament

March 25, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Office pools everywhere have been resuscitated, though barely, by the fact that this year's Final Four will be devoid of upstarts and other Cinderellas. While Duke won't be in Atlanta for Saturday's national semifinals at the Georgia Dome, two other top seeds and the strongest No. 2 seed have survived.

Yesterday's victories by Maryland in the East Regional and Kansas in the Midwest Regional ensured that at least one of this season's best three teams will get a chance to play for the national championship. It also guaranteed that the game between the Terrapins and Jayhawks will be perceived as the true national championship.

But that will be as incorrect an assumption as thinking last week that the Blue Devils would have an easy time with Indiana.

Certainly, the Maryland-Kansas matchup is one of college basketball heavyweights, while the Hoosiers and Oklahoma will be thought of as the undercard everywhere but in Bloomington, Ind., and Norman, Okla. That would be badly underselling the Sooners.

Oklahoma, making it to the national semifinals for the first time since 1988, is no surprise to have gone this far. Since a convincing victory over Maryland in Norman in December, Kelvin Sampson's Sooners have been considered one of the elite teams in the country.

The past two weeks have only served to strengthen that belief.

If it wasn't defeating then-No. 1 Kansas in the Big 12 championship game in Kansas City, Mo., then it was shredding Arizona in the West Regional semifinals in San Jose, Calif., on Thursday. That the Sooners survived foul trouble to Aaron McGhee and Jabahri Brown in the second half of Saturday's regional-final win over Missouri showed their depth.

Oklahoma's balance between a frontcourt power game and the scoring ability of guards Hollis Price and Ebe Eri should make the Sooners difficult for the Hoosiers to defend. Oklahoma's defense was considered the most rugged in the Big 12 and likely will force Indiana to shoot nearly as well as it did in its win Saturday over Kent State.

For the Hoosiers to have any chance, a lot will depend on how fast point guard Tom Coverdale can recover from the sprained ankle he suffered in the second half of the South Regional final in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday. A.J. Moye, who played so well against Duke and Kent State, could be put in the spotlight in his return to his hometown.

Sophomore center Jared Jeffries might have carried the Hoosiers to their huge upset of the defending champion Blue Devils, but at 6 feet 10 and 215 pounds, he could be pushed around inside by the 6-8, 250-pound McGhee. He'll need some help from 6-8, 220-pound Jarrad Odle and 6-9 Jeff Newton.

One thing hasn't changed at Indiana since Mike Davis took over from Bob Knight. The Hoosiers are still relentless on defense, and the matchup between Indiana's Dane Fife, the Big Ten's co-Defensive Player of the Year, and Oklahoma's Price could be crucial to this game's outcome.

And one other thing hasn't changed since last year: The Terps might be a little unlucky in their semifinal matchup. Last year, Maryland had to overcome the hurdle of beating the Blue Devils after losing twice in three meetings - not to mention the perception (or reality) of the refs bailing out Duke.

Now Maryland will have to battle a team whose rebounding prowess could become the biggest hurdle on Saturday. Unless the Terps do a better job on the boards than they did against Connecticut yesterday, and a better job with their interior defense, Kansas could win by double digits.

That's not to say Maryland doesn't come in with certain matchups in its favor. Juan Dixon, who has carried the Terps on his slim shoulders since the tournament began, might be a little too quick for senior guard Jeff Boschee and a little too strong and experienced for freshman Aaron Miles.

A lot will depend on if Kirk Hinrich can regain some of the quickness that has seemingly disappeared since he sprained his ankle in an opening-round win over Holy Cross. When healthy, Hinrich is Kansas' best perimeter defender and could give Dixon problems, as Duke's Dahntay Jones has done at times.

The most interesting matchup will come inside, because the Terps are going to have to start out with sophomore Chris Wilcox going up against Big 12 Player of the Year Drew Gooden, leaving Lonny Baxter to contend with Nick Collison. Wilcox and Baxter can be foul-prone at times, and need to stay on the floor.

This much is certain: For Maryland to have any chance at beating Kansas, point guard Steve Blake will have to come out of the funk that has shrouded his play the past two games. Perhaps the three-pointer he hit at the end of yesterday's win over Connecticut - an ill-advised three at that - will wake him up.

The Terps have had an advantage on most of their opponents because of their strong bench.

Maryland certainly has the edge in terms of experience, with junior guard Drew Nicholas providing a steady hand replacing Blake, and Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle helping out inside if Baxter or Wilcox gets in foul trouble. But freshmen Keith Langford and Wayne Simien have given the Jayhawks a big lift.

In the next five days, most of the talk will surround Maryland and Kansas. Or, for those west of the Mississippi, Kansas and Maryland. But don't overlook the first semifinal, and certainly don't overlook the Sooners. They are just as big and deep and talented as the Terps or Jayhawks.

Given their performance since the Big 12 championship game, and the fact that they have beaten Kansas and Maryland this season, the Sooners should be considered the favorite in Atlanta. The prediction here is for Oklahoma to be college basketball's heavyweight champion.

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