- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Since the NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled Sunday, most critics have complained that the 17-12 Oklahoma Sooners didn't deserve an at-large bid.
But underestimating the eighth-seeded Sooners is a mistake, and their matchup against No. 9 seed Arizona on Sunday (ESPN, noon) could be the most competitive first-round game in the Cattanooga Regional.
Yes, the Sooners lost three of their last five games, including an early, second-round exit from their conference tournament. But coming from the tough-as-nails Big 12 just gets teams ready for the NCAA Tournament.
Oklahoma doesn't play a very structured inside-outside game. Instead, the players are versatile on the court and, in the simplest term and most convenient definition, they just go out and play.
Dionnah Jackson -- the last holdover from the Sooners' 2001 Final Four team -- is a star and leads this fairly young team that starts three sophomores and two seniors. She averages 14.5 points and eight rebounds a game. The 5-foot-9 senior guard also leads the OU in blocks, steals and assists. Jackson's helped by 6-1 sophomore Leah Rush, who averages 15 points and six rebounds. Sophomores Erin Higgins and Britney Brown also play keys roles for coach Sherri Coale's good, but young squad.
The Sooners' biggest problem is they're a small team. They're versatile, but their lack of size -- and struggles with rebounding -- will be especially noticeable against Arizona and the Wildcats' 6-5 star Shawntinice Polk. The junior center is big, strong, knows how to get in position and is a really good finisher around the basket once she gets there.
So how does little OU stop Polk? Key on Arizona point guard Dee-Dee Wheeler. The Sooners must face-guard and point-press Wheeler and make anybody else bring the ball up floor. OU wants to put the ball in the hands of freshman guard Jessica Arnold or junior guard Natalie Jones. Anyone but Wheeler. Sure, playing Wheeler almost chest-to-chest will be exhausting, but Polk can't hurt the Sooners if Wheeler can't get her the ball.
Arizona will want to run. The Wildcats an be quick up the floor or they can go inside and establish Polk. Arizona has a very good inside-outside game while, on the other hand, OU pretty much lacks a solid inside game, which might be the biggest difference here. Oklahoma relies on generating points from the perimeter, but its lack of size might ultimately do it in.
The advantage goes to Arizona.