Sooners must turn game into a grind
UConn and Duke may still be the odds-on favorites to collide in the title game, but Texas is playing its best basketball. Even though no team has ever won a national championship in the same season it suffered a 30-point loss, I believe Texas is fully capable of cutting the nets down in Indianapolis.
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The stop in Norman is the second of eight for Rece Davis, Dick Vitale, Jay Bilas and the rest of the Gameday crew. Here's the rest of the season's schedule:
Feb. 4: Kentucky at Florida
Over the last nine games, Texas is averaging 79 points per game on 47 percent shooting, and outrebounding opponents by nine caroms per outing. Overall, defense has been the Horns' calling card, as coach Rick Barnes' troops have limited opponents to just 58 points per game, including holding the last five opponents under 60. Despite the losses to Duke and Tennessee, and a bunch of injuries and depth issues, Texas' 17-2 start is its best since 1978.
Daniel Gibson is the leader of this team, despite the fact he is no longer the primary ball handler. Gibson is explosive on the offensive end, putting up a masterful 37 points on Baylor when the Bears were keying on the Horns' inside game. Gibson is an outstanding on-ball defender, and puts great pressure on the ball.
P.J. Tucker is the player who no team seems to match up with, and he can overpower almost anyone he plays against. Tucker has amazing hands and keeps what he touches. There are few players who can match his will.
LaMarcus Aldridge is the best true center in the nation and has blossomed into a primary scoring threat. If he continues to work -- and he has displayed a great work ethic -- he will be a great college player and pro.
One thing I love about Texas: When the Horns were criticized about the losses to Duke and Tennessee, and their mental toughness was questioned, they just went to work and got better. This is a really good team, with a terrific coach in Barnes.
Oklahoma was ranked as a top-five team entering the season, and that might have been a little high. The Sooners have what it takes to be a very good team, but lack quality shooting at multiple positions. That, and the fact coach Kelvin Sampson's team has had more than its share of banged-up players, has meant some less-than-stellar performances on the road to the NCAA Tournament.
Gray is a long and athletic post player who can get out and run and finish inside. He is not particularly skilled, but he pursues the ball relentlessly and is an outstanding offensive rebounder.
Bookout is a marvel. He is efficient and a great leader and teammate. Bookout is a world-class track and field athlete, an accomplished baseball player, and is drawing looks from the NFL. You had better sit on his left shoulder in the post, because he is very good with his right-handed jump hook, his go-to move.
Everett is a clutch player. More of a scorer than a shooter, he has hit several huge shots this season to drag Oklahoma out of some late-game trouble. Everett is a slasher who can hit shots, and he is second in the Big 12 in assists.
With Michael Neal and Austin Johnson now healthier and readier to play, two shooters are added and defenses can be stretched a bit, but what sets this team apart is its defense and rebounding. The Sooners are an outstanding rebounding team, especially Gray and Bookout. Sampson would rather not have to rely upon offensive rebounding as much as he does, because it means his team is missing shots, but OU's best offense sometimes is a missed shot.
Oklahoma is not going to outscore Texas, winning by offense alone. To the contrary, the Sooners will have to force Texas to grind. If Texas gets easy baskets, then the Longhorns will win. If the game is a street fight and a physical, a crusade to score, then Oklahoma can win it.
Key matchup:Everett and Gibson. Both players are quality scorers and passers. Gibson is a deep-range shooter and Everett is a driver who can pull up and pop. Expect Texas to play a lot of 2-3 zone, which will require Everett to get into the gaps of the zone to shoot or dish it.
Key stats: Rebounding and Free Throws. The glass will be the defining stat of the game. The Longhorns do not allow teams to shoot good percentages, and OU does not shoot a good percentage anyway. These are the two best rebounding teams in the Big 12. The team that cleans up misses and limits second shots will have a distinct advantage. Texas also has made more free throws than its opponents have attempted -- worth watching if the game is physical.
X-factors: Brad Buckman and Neal. Buckman is the glue of the Texas team, and when he is healthy is a terrific player. He can step away and shoot it, he rebounds well and he can block and challenge shots. Neal is a shooter, and when healthy and confident, he can be a difference-maker. Neal has to step forward and take (and make) big shots against Texas for the Sooners to win.
What to watch for: Watch how Texas uses Gibson as a shooting guard. Gibson dominated the ball last year and early this year, and he is much better looking to score off the ball. He is still a very good point guard, but with this team's makeup, he is better as a shooting guard. Also watch how Barnes mixes defenses. He will play some zone, man and will press some. Watch how Oklahoma shoots the ball out of the gate. If the Sooners knock down some shots, they will play with greater confidence. Lastly, watch the coaches work the game. There are not two more intense competitors in the game, and both are really good guys.
Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, is a regular contributor to Insider.
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