OU's role players can't disappear in Dance

Updated: March 13, 2006, 8:54 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Oklahoma can win the NCAA title if: the Sooners' role players hit their averages

There is, quite literally, no bigger star in the women's game than Oklahoma freshman center Courtney Paris. The daughter of former San Francisco 49ers lineman Bubba Paris is a giant with the touch and agility of a much smaller player, but in her shadow lurks the key to a national championship.

Taking a closer look at the favorites to win the 2006 NCAA Tournament, ESPN.com's Graham Hays identifies the biggest X factors facing each team:

• UConn's fate rests in Houston's hands
There might not be a more gifted player with the ball in her hands than Charde Houston. But can she break loose in the Big Dance?

• Time for Currie to come up big for Duke
Duke personifies the team concept. But Monique Currie must be able to put her teammates on her back when needed.

• Tiger duo could be best in bracket
Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles will determine how far LSU advances. But if they come up big, it's a 1-2 punch that could knock out the field.

• Terps must limit turnovers
The Terps are good enough to beat any team in the country -- as long as their guards take care of the ball.

• Larkins must be Robin to Latta's Batman
When (and if) star Ivory Latta should falter this NCAA Tournament, Erlana Larkins must be the one to step up for UNC.

• Packer can't let OSU foes pack in paint
Marscilla Packer must keep hitting shots from outside to open up the paint for OSU and Jessica Davenport.

• OU's role players can't disappear
Courtney Paris will come up big. But for OU to win, it needs every part firing on all cylinders to get it done against top competition.

• Two sides to Rutgers' aggression
Rutgers could go far on its relentless and downright annoying defense -- as long as opponents don't match or find a way to exploit that aggressiveness.

• Will fatigue be a factor for Tennessee?
Tennessee's success rests solely on its starters, who are more familiar with each other than Buddhist monks in monasteries.

If coach Sherri Coale is to get her second trip to a Final Four and her first title, Oklahoma's numerous role players must all play their roles. It sounds simple, but any parent facing a daylight deadline on Christmas Eve knows the more moving parts something has, the more likely it is to either show up missing a piece or have something break at precisely the wrong moment.

Against Iowa State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament, Paris scored 36 points on 62 percent shooting. The rest of the Sooners scored 42 points on 38 percent shooting. Essentially, the overmatched Cyclones opted to let Paris get all she could out of a one-on-one matchup, while trying to keep the rest of the Sooners from supplying the necessary help. And even with Paris' monster numbers, it almost worked, as the Sooners hung on for the win in a 78-74 thriller.

Was it just an off day for some of the Sooners, or a blueprint for how to contain the best team in the Big 12? Well, the Sooners came out the next day and ran a decent Missouri team off the court in a 46-17 first half, so the former is entirely within the realm of possibility. But there are some reasons to focus in on Leah Rush, Chelsi Welch, Erin Higgins, Britney Brown, Kendra Moore, Laura Andrews and even Ashley Paris, Courtney's twin sister.

Consider that after Courtney Paris, who led the team with 21.3 points per game, Oklahoma's next three leading scorers (Rush, Welch and Higgins) shot a combined 42 percent from the floor. And that was with many opponents double- and triple-teaming Paris on a regular basis. All three are good 3-point shooters, which somewhat mitigates the overall shooting percentage, but a cold streak is a cold streak. Welch and Higgins combined to hit 7-of-10 from behind the arc in that Big 12 semifinal win against Missouri to help fuel the rout, but a cold night could send things the other way just as easily.

Teams need outside shooting on the road to a championship -- just ask LSU how difficult life is without that weapon -- but too much can also be a problem when consistency is a key element in being able to win six games in a row.

Of course, Oklahoma's role players do more than stand around the perimeter waiting for Courtney Paris to kick out the ball for 3-pointers. Brown must continue distributing the ball (3.9 apg) without being careless (2.3 tpg), Ashley Paris must continue providing solid minutes off the bench to relieve her sister in the post, and the entire group must play the kind of team defense that allows the Sooners to hold opponents to 38 percent shooting despite forcing a relatively small number of turnovers.

That the Sooners have the collective talent around Paris to win a title is clear from their dominance of the Big 12. But from losses against Connecticut, Michigan State and Ohio State, it's also clear that they need every part firing on all cylinders to get it done against top competition.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.