Interest in college basketball surpassed the NBA several years ago. Comparing the level of excitement between the two versions is akin to comparing the acting chops of Tom Hanks and Dane Cook. Hollywood would normally be all over this phenomenon but perhaps the writers' strike is affecting their collective creativity.
Seriously, think back to the last basketball movie that captured the essence of the sport. More importantly, the last movie you enjoyed for the right reasons? Glory Road? Poor execution and casting. Finding Forrester? "You're the man now, dog!" ruined the genuineness for me. Plus, not truly about the sport. White Men Can't Jump? Too racy 15 years later? Teen Wolf? Just wanted to add Michael J. Fox into the mix.
Hoosiers is still the measuring stick and it was released almost 20 years ago. My point? Right. Let's shift in the same direction television has been headed for years. No scripts (reality based), no high paid actors (or players)--just exciting, real-life sports.
Without further ado, UTW welcomes you to the "Official 2007-08 College Basketball Preview of Teams That Matter to You: Tulsa, Oral Roberts, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma."
The day was March 14, 2005. The University of Tulsa hired the little known (in these parts) Michigan State assistant Doug Wojcik to become the 28th head basketball coach. It was two years ago I first sat down with Coach Wojcik in his cluttered office.
"The culture of the team, the culture of the players, the character of the players--everything is a lot different than it was two years ago," recalled Wojcik as he awaited a recruit's call in his sleek-looking, ultra-modern office.
Today, the issues he faced when he took over the fledgling TU program are all but erased. The systems have been updated to reflect the technological advances.
The team is coming off of a 20-win season. The squad made steady improvements as the year progressed.
"We really have done pretty well in the last two years when you think about it," said Wojcik.
Two years ago the Golden Hurricane was picked to finish ninth in the league. It scrapped and clawed its way to a respectable sixth in Conference USA. Last year? It was picked sixth and finished fourth. The team finished 9-7 in the conference with six new players a year ago.
The team's experience level should pay dividends.
"We have three seniors who are fifth-year seniors in college: Brett McDade, Rod Earls and Calvin Walls. The schedule will be more difficult but, it should be. It needs to be," said Wojcik with a contagious level of anticipation for the possibility of a return to postseason play.
Take a look at past champions. There is one common denominator: a solid coach-point guard combo. Brett McDade (6'0", 170 lbs.) fills the PG role. And he's the one player on this Hurricane team coach Wojcik did not recruit.
Not many schools can compete with Tulsa in the classroom. McDade is an All-Academic performer in Conference USA.
"He's done every thing I have asked him to do. He's been a model citizen. I expect great things from him. We've converted him from more of a scorer to a point guard," said Wojcik.
Coach Wojcik preaches the same fundamentals every coach across American teaches. Tulsa's defensive pressure and rebounding are at acceptable levels. He seeks improved scoring and ball possession this year.
A player who should thrive in all areas? Sophomore sensation Ben Uzoh. Of the four captains, he is the only one who is not a senior. This speaks volumes about the admiration his teammates and coaches have for his skills.
"On the defensive end, he could be considered the best defensive player--a stopper. He's in the gym more than most people. I expect him to break out from 10 points per game to increase that to anywhere from 15 to 20. He's progressing as any kid should progress as a sophomore," said Wojcik.
Uzoh's points per game average are misleading. As a freshman, his crunch time minutes and responsibilities were limited at the start of the year. The 6'2", 190-lb. guard led the team in rebounds. "He would be considered my best overall player," coach says.
Long time Tulsa post player Charles Ramsdell didn't elicit fear in the paint from the opposition. This year, the jovial Jerome Jordan (7'0", 235 lbs.) plans to mark his territory.
"Fans should be really excited about (Jordan)," Wojcik said of the larger than life native of Kingston, Jamaica. Don't worry, coach knows your next question. "Why didn't he play more at the start of last season?"
"He had to learn," said Wojcik. Coach did inject him into the starting lineup for the last third of the season. "He really showed signs. He's stronger. He's never been that guy. If he had been that guy, he probably wouldn't be at Tulsa."
"So he's a work in progress," Wojcik continued. "Let's be patient with him. He's got a great personality. Love his attitude. I honestly expect big things out of Jerome Jordan. But let's not expect too much too soon."
You want to know how much Wojcik thinks of the big man? He went as far as to draw parallels to TU quarterback Paul Smith.
"From (Smith's) sophomore year, to see him as a sophomore, very good, but to see him now as a senior? Man would I love to have a guy like that running my team. Now imagine Jerome in his senior year. He's just going into his sophomore year. (Smith) had success as a sophomore. I think Jerome will have success as a sophomore," said Wojcik.
The Hurricane is aiming for postseason play in any shape or form. The NCAA? Fantastic! The NIT? Absolutely no qualms about heading to the 'other' tournament.
"Post season play. Add on to the 20 wins. Are those predictions? No, those are goals. Are we on the path for those? Absolutely. Do you have to have some luck? Yes. Do you have to be fortunate with the injury bug? Yes. There's a lot of things that can happen between now and March," Wojcik said.
Some teams shy away from NIT talk.
"Sixty-five teams get into the NCAA tournament. Ninety-seven teams out of 330 get into postseason. Less than a third of all college basketball programs get to play in the postseason. We've got to embrace that," he said.
Besides, the last two times TU won the NIT tournament, it was a catapult to March Madness the following year. Nolan Richardson and Buzz Peterson are gone from the 1981 and 2001 NIT championship teams but Wojcik is knocking on the door.
The Wojcik's just added a new member to the family. "We got a Shiba Inu," he said, sporting the same confused look I had.
"Believe me, I don't know either," he mused.
When his two boys, Paxson and Denham, aren't painting conference artworks to class-up the coach's walls, they are naming the family dog. The choices? "Rookie" and "Champ".
The boys chose "Rookie." Let's hope the team plays more like Champs.
The home schedule tips off on Fri., Nov. 16 against Arkansas State at 7pm.
Hope, Prayer and a New League
Of course the "Champs" moniker has been reserved for the other Tulsa team over the past three seasons. The Oral Roberts Golden Eagles captured three Mid-Continent Conference regular-season titles, played in the NIT and appeared in back-to-back NCAA Tournament with the help of the towering titans.
Caleb Green's and Ken Tutt's gargantuan shadows figure to loom over everything ORU this year. Oh how times have changed in South Tulsa.
Green and Tutt have graduated to overseas basketball careers. The Mid-Con is no more. We are ushering in The Summit League era. Gone is the arch-nemesis Valparaiso. Incoming are North Dakota State, South Dakota State and Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
If you are not familiar with the additional teams ORU will face this season, you are not alone.
"I've never seen any of the three teams that joined our league play. I know North Dakota State has had success," said coach Scott Sutton, who is preparing for his ninth season on the Eagles bench.
"They've had a couple of great wins the last few years. Winning at Marquette and at Wisconsin. I know they have four starters back. Besides that, it'll be an unknown. I think it'll be an unknown for most of the teams in our league. There will be a learning process," he said.
ORU is entering unfamiliar territory. Losing two outstanding cornerstones like Green and Tutt will take time to overcome.
The team is blessed with depth this year. Intangibles and go-to guys will sort themselves out as the season progresses.
"I think this year there won't be as many expectations from the outside. I think the expectations from within will be the same. I don't think a lot of people realize the quality of players we have. It will be a little different not having that bulls-eye on you," he said.
"I think we have a good nucleus of guys coming back. The problem is that they all were role players the last few years and they were great role players. They complemented Ken and Caleb in a great way," said Sutton.
Guys like Moses Ehambe, Adam Liberty and Shawn King have played a lot of basketball and all three are capable scorers.
The 6'10", 220-lb. King kept defenses honest while deferring to Green in the past. This year, his role on the defensive end will remain in tact. He will be asked to supplement scoring from the post as well.
"This year we're going to have to have them step up and I think there are a few other guys like Marchello Vealy and Kelvin Sango. Those two guys are very good players as well. Both have shown flashes of being able to score points for us. We just need them to do it on a more consistent basis," said Sutton.
In September, Coach Sutton led his team on a march through Canada on an Exhibition Tour. Win, win and win were the results. The competition will stiffen back in the states but the court time should prove to be invaluable.
The Golden Eagles discovered the newfound depth while in the Great White North.
"In the past, we knew we had eight or nine guys who would play for us and then we had a few who would be red shirt candidates and probably couldn't help us that much in a particular year.
"This year we have around 13 guys who will be fighting for playing time. I don't play that many guys. I like to play eight or nine so that will be part of our process growing as a team is determining what eight or nine or 10 guys will play consistently," he continued.
Oral Roberts once again scheduled top-notch opponents for the non-conference season. The NIT Season Tip-Off will pit them against Texas A&M. Games against Arkansas and Texas highlight a tough pre-Summit schedule.
And there's one more game of local and likely national interest on the schedule.
Coaches are too smart for us media types. We continually try to lure them into traps or have them look past the upcoming opponent. They never bite. It's an elegant dance that always ends the same.
Scott versus Sean in the battle of the Suttons. Yes, ORU is scheduled to face off against Oklahoma State at the All-College Classic in late December.
So deep down inside Scott really wants to pummel his older brother, right? After chuckling at a question he'll likely face another 50 times the week of . . . he answered as best he could.
"Well, it goes way beyond that. It would be a great win for our program to beat a program like Oklahoma State and being on national TV. That's probably the only reason--that is the only reason I decided to play this game," Sutton said of the decision to play his brother.
It's well publicized the Suttons aren't excited about playing one another. The least excited?
"It's an awfully difficult game for my mom and dad," said the younger of Eddie's two head coaching prodigies.
However, you have to admire two programs and coaches willing to do what's best for their respective teams and universities.
"Any time you are on ESPN it gives great exposure to not only your basketball program but to your university. I just felt like it was a situation I had to take and I appreciate Oklahoma State willing to play (the game). I appreciate ESPN putting the game on TV," he said as he hit an effigy of Sean in his office with a plastic bat. I'm kidding, of course.
The shake up at ORU is profound. The style of play should be similar to years past.
"Defensively we'll play the same. Try to play good man-to-man defense. Offensively in the past, our two main options have been Caleb and Ken. This year we may run a few more sets. In the past, we've mainly been a motion team. We'll continue to run motion but we'll run a few more sets. For the most part we are going to keep the same philosophy," Sutton said.
It will be strange looking at the Mabee Center court and not seeing an electrifying Tutt three pointer or the "Glass Man" Green rebounding and putting back an easy two. Years of success have the building blocks in place. Time will tell if the blocks can be restacked.
The first non-exhibition game takes place against SW Oklahoma State on Fri., Nov. 9. Tip is scheduled for 7:05pm.
Ride 'em, Pokes
So Oklahoma State is Cowboying up to face the Golden Eagles. What else is in store for the perennial basketball powerhouse in Stillwater? Will Coach Sean Sutton proclaim he is a man and announce his age in a post game fit of weirdness?
Judging by the non-conference schedule, the ORU match-up is the least of their worries. LSU, Duke, Marquette, Illinois, Washington and Pittsburgh are just a few of the big-time challenges awaiting this team.
The Cowboys have never been confused with the run-n-gun UNLV teams of the '90s. They pride themselves in out-hustling, out-working and shutting down opponents on their way to victory.
This year will be no different. The top returning player is defensive specialist Marcus Dove (6'9", 212 lbs.). Dove managed a meager 4.7 points per contest a year ago. His 4.5 rebounds per contest leave a bit to be desired as well.
The loss of Mario Boggan and Jameson Curry devastates the scoring abilities of this squad. They combined to score 36.3 points per game last season. The five returning starters combined for less that 35 per contest.
Point guard Byron Eaton (5'11", 221 lbs.) needs to raise his game several levels. His assist per game and shooting percentages must increase in order for this team to compete on a regular basis in the Big 12.
Cowboy fans across the state cross their fingers for a full season from guard Obi Muonelo (6'5", 235 lbs.). He flashed brilliance as a freshman in limited action. He poured in 24 points once he returned from a leg injury in early March.
Honestly, he is the only player on the roster capable of carrying the offensive scoring in the early going.
The Cowboys were picked to finished seventh by Big 12 coaches in a pre-season poll. Behind Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M, Kansas State, Missouri and Oklahoma. Ouch.
Oklahoma State's season gets underway against Prairie View A&M. The game is slated for Fri., Nov. 9 at 8:30pm.
The Sooner(s) we wrap this preview up the better we'll all be. No one cares about OU's basketball team. The only buzz on campus surrounds an ex-coach's relationship with his cell phone and the Big Gal on campus.
So rather than bore you with a team's prospects that cannot sell out their arena, let's talk OU women's basketball for a second.
AP National Player of the Year, Consensus first team All-American, ESPN.com First Team All-American, Wooden Award All-America Team, Consensus Big 12 Player of the Year, Big 12 Championship MVP, Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, All-Big 12 First Team.
Those are just a few of the honors bestowed upon OU's talented center a year ago. Courtney Paris is the 6'4", (never list a female's weight) monster who also led Team USA to another gold medal.
"I've had the opportunity to practice and to play with some of the best players in the world. I've gotten so much better, not just from the experience, but from being challenged every day," she said.
"The thing about being with (the U.S. Senior National Team) was that every one works hard and gives full effort on every possession. You can have a fun personality off the court, but on the court its business, it's working hard and it's getting your job done. I think that was the coolest thing about them," said college basketball's poster girl.
So there are reasons to watch Oklahoma Sooner basketball, just not the obvious one. Case in point.
Sherri Coale is a fine coach. A fine, fine coach indeed. Will OU's fan base realize the product on the court before it's too late?
The Lady Sooners season commences against some team called Henderson State. The game is scheduled for a 7pm tip off on Thurs., Nov. 1.
Is this the year state basketball fans witness a quadruple entry into postseason play? Probably not. But, the way our college football season has gone, never say never. Or in the butchered words of Emmitt Smith attempting to quote Jimmy Valvano's poignant refrain.
Don't quit. Don't even quit.
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