Being forced to play each of the other 15 teams in the Big East this season has enabled Louisville to see about as many styles as there are in college basketball. The Cards haven't spent the past few months trying to make their opponents play Louisville basketball - partly because it's still unclear what "Louisville basketball" is right now - but rather, they've allowed them to impose their own style, and then simply followed suit. The Cards have run with the Fighting Irish, banged with the Panthers and the Hoyas, and gone drive for drive with the Golden Eagles.
And here's where it really pays off.
Louisville drew a tough opening round matchup with a Boise State team that loves to get up and down the floor and shoots the ball well from the outside. Now, just two days later, they're about to take the floor against an Oklahoma team that wins with defense and tough points down low out of its extended halfcourt sets. It's the equivalent of taking on an up-and-down St. John's team and then having just one day to prepare for the imposing front line of Connecticut...something U of L did in late January.
Obviously, you've all heard by now about how well Oklahoma would fit in the Big East, but let's take a closer look at the Sooners, beginning with the things they do well:
1. Defend the Perimeter
Obviously a 23-win team that averages under 70 points per game is doing something right on the defensive end, and this is what the Sooners do best. OU has allowed opponents to shoot just 32.1% from beyond the arc this season, good for second-best in the defensive-minded Big 12. In their first-round conference tournament win over Colorado, Oklahoma held the Buffaloes to just 6-of-25 shooting from three, which helped them advance despite scoring just 54 points.
It's safe to say that the open looks from the outside that were there in the first round for the Cards aren't going to be there in the second.
The Sooners generally play more man than zone, but they play enough 2-3 that I would expect to see a healthy dose of it this afternoon. My guess is that they'll start with a dyslexic version of the Louisville defense and go man off of makes and zone off of misses, and then adjust accordingly as the game progresses. They will also always go to zone when teams are inbounding the ball from underneath their own basket.
2. Score in the Post
We'll get more into this once we get to the individuals, but Longar Longar and Blake Griffin make up one of the best frontcourt duos remaining in the tournament. While OU will certainly take their fair share of outside shots, the vast majority of their halfcourt sets are designed to get shots in the paint, and they certainly have the horses to make those sets successful.
3. Beat Louisville
Oklahoma is 3-0 all-time against Louisville, having beaten the Cardinals in the 1970 NIT, the 1984 Chaminade Classic, and the 1988 NCAA Tournament in Birmingham.
4. Having One Guy Go Off From Deep
The Sooners don't shoot the three-pointer all that well collectively (35.8%), but they always seem to have one guy who gets hot when they need him to. In their victory over St. Joe's on Friday it was David Godbold, who buried 5-of-8 treys and scored a career-high 25 points. Tony Crocker, Omar Leary and Austin Johnson have also put on out-of-character shooting exhibitions at various points over the course of the season.
5. Recover From Injuries
Whatever gene David Padgett has that allows his body to heal faster than most human beings is one that he must share with Longar and Griffin. The latter sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee during a Jan. 14 game at Kansas and then partially tore the medial meniscus cartilage in his right knee against Texas A&M just three weeks ago, but he's missed only two games all season and played 30 minutes on Friday night. Longar broke a bone in his lower right leg a month-and-half ago, but has also missed just two games, and is now playing without anything to protect the injured area.
And now, the alway more popular, what Oklahoma does not do well:
1. Defend in Transition
This was the most glaring weakness I picked up in the three games (West Virginia, Missouri, Texas) I saw them play. Oklahoma does a horrible job of recovering after missed shots or turnovers, and it's part of the reason why the more athletic teams on their schedule - Memphis, USC, Kansas, Texas - were all able to beat them by double-digits.
Louisville's fast-break struggles have been fairly well-documented on this site, but the Cards have no choice but to push in this game because there are too many easy baskets to be had, and because it might be the only way to get a guy like Jerry Smith an open look from three. When you have an athletic advantage over a team that wants to play a slow game in the 60's, this is the area where you have to exploit it. Even though I think the Cards can find success playing the halfcourt game on offense, they should still be looking to push at every opportunity. Let's just hope a lot of long rebounds end up in Andre McGee's hands.
2. Handle Pressure
Here's the other biggie. Austin Johnson, Omar Leary and the off-guards are all decent enough ballhandlers, but their collective lack of athleticism really becomes evident when teams force them to speed up.
Johnson facilitates the Sooner offense very well, but - like the Johnson of two days ago - his first instinct when pressed is to pick the ball up, and then jump and chuck. T-Will and Earl should both have their fair share of opportunities to pick off floaters around mid-court. Leary is shorter and quicker, and Jeff Capel has used him more against the more aggressive defensive teams like Texas and Missouri. He's likely a better overall ballhandler than Johnson, but his size makes him a real liability against a team like Louisville.
3. Lose Gracefully
OU has lost its 11 games by a combined 151 points, for an average of just under 14 points per loss. By comparison, Louisville has lost its eight games by a combined 38 points, an average of 4.75 points per loss. The Sooners lost by 30 at Kansas, by 14 at last-place Colorado, and lost three games to Texas by 10, 17 and 28 points.
4. Shoot Free-Throws
The Sooners' team free-throw percentage of 68.2 ranks 10th in the Big 12. Longar (62.1%) and Griffin (60.1%) are especially shaky from the stripe.
5. Win Games in the 50's
Oklahoma is 22-2 when scoring 60 points or more, but just 1-9 when held under that mark.
6. Shoot the Mid-Range Jumper
If you see a Sooner pulling up from anywhere inside the three-point line but outside the paint, you can expect to see it coming off of the rim hard and fast an instant later.
On to the individuals:
Blake Griffin F 6-10 (14.9 ppg/9.2 rpg)
Griffin hasn't garnered as much attention as some of the other heralded freshmen around the country, but his season has been nearly as productive. He leads Oklahoma in both scoring and rebounding, and has shown off the skill-set that will undoubtedly make him a very rich man relatively soon. He can handle the ball, he's an apt passer, and there might not be a better finisher around the basket in college basketball. A consistent jumper outside of ten-feet, however, is what is keeping him from being NBA-ready right now.
Griffin isn't an awful defender, but he doesn't appear nearly as eager to do his job on that end of the floor as he is on the other. He's also a young kid who sometimes lets the emotion of the game negatively effect his effort. If he thinks he got fouled on a shot, you can almost guarantee a half-hearted defensive possession immediately after.
Still, this is a very, very talented kid who will likely be more than ready to try and showcase his skills in a big game against a highly-touted opposing front line. Don't be surprised, or disheartened, if Blake Griffin scores at least 18 points.
Longar Longar C, 6-11 (11.7 ppg/5.7 rpg)
Here's a player I love, and not just because his name is fun to say (do it...now). He didn't start playing basketball until he was 15, and has turned himself into an All-Big 12 performer.
Oklahoma doesn't score a lot of baskets in transition, but when they do it's generally Longer playing the role of finisher. He's not especially athletic, but he runs the floor well and always seems to be in the right position to score.
His go-to move in the post is a right-handed baby hook, which he has down pretty pat. He NEVER uses his left-hand though, so it would likely benefit our big men to hang over his left shoulder when he has the ball with his back to the basket. He also likes to implore a series of shot-fakes, something which our post players - especially David - have been biting on more and more recently.
He sort of reminds me of a mix of Earl Clark and Juan Palacios, so it shouldn't be much of a surprise that he has a tendency to get lost on defense. His length has helped him to be the leading shot-blocker on the team (33), but he's still far too slight and unathletic to be feared in the paint by the likes of Clark, Padgett and Caracter.
Tony Crocker G, 6-6 (11.4 ppg/3.8 rpg)
Crocker is easily OU's biggest threat from outside. He's taken (144) and made (63) more three-pointers than any other Sooner, and his 43.8% average from deep is also best on the team. He comes into today's game having missed 12 of his last 15 attempts from beyond the arc, but the Cardinals would still be foolish to not know where he is on the floor at all times.
While Griffin and Longar capture most of the headlines, it's Crocker who is perhaps the key to victory for Oklahoma. The athletic sophomore is averaging 13.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists while shooting 52.1% in Sooner wins. While in losses, those numbers fall to 7.9 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 30.4%. Crocker is also shooting 53.2% from three-point range in OU's victories (50-for-94), but just 25% in defeats (13-for-52).
Crocker is generally the player assigned to the opposing team's best guard, and that's part of the reason he's found himself in foul trouble a number of times this season. He is the most versatile player on Capel's roster, and when he's out of the game, the Sooners tend to really struggle offensively.
Austin Johnson G, 6-3 (8.8 ppg/2.7 rpg)
Johnson is the point guard who makes this team go in the halfcourt. He's a heady player, but his lack of athleticism and raw talent really become evident when he's pressured. He struggles to get the offense started against teams that utilize heavy ball pressure because he's making the initial pass from right around midcourt. He's also looked uncomfortable against the few pressing teams he's faced. His turnover numbers are low for a point guard who plays as many minutes as he does, but Oklahoma's style of play is partly responsible for that.
Johnson's just a 33.8% three-point shooter on the season, but he's knocked down three or more six times this season, and drilled 6-of-11 in a two-point win over Texas Tech on Feb. 16. He's not particularly dangerous when he's well guarded or trying to shoot off of the dribble, but he will make the wide-open catch-and-shoot three more times than not.
He's not going to make the spectacular pass, but Johnson has handed out 15 assists in Oklahoma's last two games, and owns a respectable 2.7:1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio on the year. He's terrific at making the simple bounce pass when it's open and at getting the ball into the hands of the hot shooter at the right time. Overall, just a very solid player.
Like Crocker, his personal performance generally reflects that of his entire team. In wins, he's averaging 10.6 points a game while shooting 43.6% from the field and 37.3% from three-point distance (38-for-102). In defeats, Johnson's averaging 5.1 ppg while shooting 30.9% from the floor and 26.2% from long range (11-for-42). He's also averaging 2.9 free-throw attempts when OU wins, and 0.5 attempts when they don't.
David Godbold G, 6-5 (7.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
Godbold comes into today's game with more confidence than he's had all season after scoring a career-high 25 points Friday night against St. Joseph's. In that game, Godbold - a 29.4% three-point shooter - knocked 5-of-8 triples and made all six of his free-throws. It was also Godbold who harassed the Hawks' leading scorer, Pat Calathes, into a 2-of-11 shooting performance.
Though he came into the NCAA Tournament averaging less than seven points a contest, Friday's explosion wasn't necessarily all that out-of-character for Godbold. He scored 22 against Texas A&M, 18 against West Virginia, 16 against Missouri, and hit the game-winning three at the buzzer against Texas Tech.
Goldbold is likely Capel's best man-to-man defender, and my guess is that we'll him matched up with T-Will. He's certainly an athletic player, but we'll find out just how athletic this evening.
Taylor Griffin F, 6-7 (6.4 ppg/4.9 rpg)
The older brother of Blake Griffin, Taylor lacks little bro's height, but he's got about the same body, and perhaps just a bit more desire. He's scored in double-figures six times, including a 20-point performance against Oklahoma State, and he's grabbed ten or more rebounds three times.
Griffin has a decent mid-range shot, but he's prone to taking wild shots at inopportune times for his team. He's also prone to foul trouble, picking up at least four seven times.
He's been a highly productive post player for the Sooners in his junior season, but I'm not sure how effective he can be against a frontcourt as big and athletic as Lousiville's.
Omar Leary G, 5-10 (3.9 ppg/1.3 rpg)
Leary is Capel's backup point guard, and he'll likely see the floor for around 20 minutes on Sunday. He's quicker and perhaps more skilled with the ball than Johnson, but his height (5-10 is more than generous) is a major issue against an athletic team that likes to press.
He hasn't scored in double figures since Dec. 15, but he shoots a left-handed push-shot (ala Avery Johnson) from deep that he's hitting at a 33.8% rate.
Cade Davis G, 6-5 (3.7 ppg/1.5 rpg)
Davis' playing time fluctuates in a perplexing manner. He had played more than 20 minutes in each of Oklahoma's last two games before seeing just five minutes of court time on Friday.
He was advertised as a dead-eye shooter when he came to Norman, so his 28.8% average from deep is likely disappointing to Sooner fans. Still, he did knock down five treys in OU's two Big 12 Tournament games, so Louisville defenders would do well to know where he is when he's in the game.
There's no telling how much court time Davis will see today, but you can almost guarantee that he'll be in the game if the Sooners are looking to salt a win away late, as he's hit all 22 of his free-throw attempts on the season.
To put it bluntly, Oklahoma is not a team that appears very impressive on paper. But, they are one of the last 24 Division I teams still playing, and there's obviously a reason for that.
Louisville struggled to put points on the board and ultimately lost the last two times it played a team known for its defense, and the Sooners aren't going to make things any easier on the Cards than Georgetown or Pittsburgh did. Teams that defend this well and that have a couple of guys who can put the ball in the basket on the other end are certainly capable of hanging with streaky-shooting teams that also generally win with defense.
Still, Louisville is the more talented team here, and Louisville is the team that should still be in the tournament when the smoke clears. The Cards were obviously focused and prepared when they took the floor against Boise, and as long as they come into today's game with the same mindset, I feel good about our chances.
More this afternoon.