Oklahoma trying to right ship in wake of Big 12 tourney upset
Ah, Norman. When the mid-March sun is warm, and the calendar is clear, a woman can get some serious gardening done. It is late in the week, when her Oklahoma Sooners would normally be sending teams home at the Big 12 tournament, and OU coach Sherri Coale is in her yard, wondering what she did with her cell phone. Someday, maybe they'll laugh at this, and say these trying times were exactly what a comfortable top-10 program needed.
For now, idle hands lead to wandering minds. Coale is pondering the inexact science of chemistry. Courtney Paris -- the national player of the year -- is reading her journal from freshman year and wondering why things seemed so simple then and are so hard now.
The Sooners have lost three straight, and no matter what Paris does, it doesn't seem to help. She had 30 points and 20 rebounds in the first round of the Big 12 tournament. Oklahoma lost in overtime to last-place Missouri.
Hours after Paris blamed herself in front of a handful of cameras, she got back to Norman and opened the journal, seeking wisdom from the scribbled old pages.
"If anything, I wish I had a little bit of that youth in me now," Paris says. "I wish I could be a little more carefree. I wish that for our whole team, to not have pressure, to enjoy ourselves. I wish I could be that fun-loving person and not have to worry about this. Just go and play."
There is a reason Coale calls Paris an old soul. She gets things the average 20-year-old doesn't. Like the time she sobbed uncontrollably on Senior Night for Beky Preston, not because she'd miss her, but because Paris, as a freshman, knew what Preston had sacrificed to make the kid a dominating center. Sooners fans wonder if Paris is pressing now, feeling the need to lead, wondering if she's done enough.
The reality for No. 13 Oklahoma is that there are no seniors on this team, and no consistent scoring from the perimeter. The Sooners missed 59 shots against Missouri. Take Paris out of the equation, and they hit 23 percent from the field. They closed out the conference season with double-digit losses to Texas and Texas A&M. They assumed things would get better in Kansas City, because OU had won back-to-back Big 12 championships.
But confidence is lagging, and even the perpetually perky Coale seems somewhat drained for answers.
"With all due respect, that's up to us to figure out," Coale says. "We're family. It's a team. We're doing everything we can to get it going in the right direction. I'm not sure it's anyone else's business to know what it's about, truthfully.
"I just think in the 12 years I've been here, at the end of the year, we've been able to look at our group and say our whole is greater than the sum of our parts. Even in the Final Four year in 2002, yeah, we had some great players but they were so good together. That's been our ace through the years, but I don't think we've done that this year."
Paris is still putting up massive numbers. She's averaging 18.7 points, 15.1 rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots. She's the only player in the country to be ranked in the top 50 in more than three of the eight major statistical categories.
But the more opponents pay attention to Paris, the less they pay attention to the supporting cast, and that, it seems, makes the supporting cast more withdrawn, Coale says.
Odd thing is, it usually gets better for young teams by March. Oklahoma splashed onto the national scene in the first week of the season, when it lost by a basket to then-No. 1 Tennessee. The Sooners rattled off 10 straight wins after that. They were really just getting to know each other.
Paris had spent the summer in Russia with the USA National team and missed preseason workouts with the freshmen. When she came back to Norman, "it seemed like a totally different team," she said.
"These guys have a lot more pressure on them," Paris says. "They have to live up to all that stuff that has happened to our program."
Paris neglects to mention the anvil that rests on her 6-foot-4 shoulders. She's viewed -- in Big 12 circles at least -- as the face of her sport. Her freshman season at OU, the Sooners didn't lose a league game, and Paris was dubbed all-everything. The next year, teams rushed the court when they beat her, and Paris kept smiling and dominating.
If Courtney can't lead a talented team back to the Sweet 16, who can?
"I do feel a huge responsibility on my part to make sure things go right on our team," Paris says. "I've got to be smart enough to realize I can't do it by myself."
And to take advantage of some free time in a wacky 21-8 season. Paris says the humbling early exit from the Big 12 tournament may pay off in a couple of weeks.
Sitting at home late one night, she found a quote in her freshman journal that put her at peace. It says, "Life's not about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning to dance in the rain." Maybe she'll tell it to this year's group of freshmen.
Maybe she'll come to the conclusion that the Sooners need to stop thinking so much.
"It's an inexact science when people are involved," Coale says. "Lots of personalities, lots of different struggles. At the end of the day, you have to be able to put all that aside and come together as a group. That's what makes team sports so maddening and rewarding."
Elizabeth Merrill is a writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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