Friday, March 28, 2003

Oklahoma-Butler preview

Price pronounces himself fit

ALBANY, N.Y. - Hollis Price was smiling again. Butler was expecting nothing less. Hobbled for Oklahoma's first two games of the NCAA tournament by a tear in his left groin, Price said he was 99.9 percent fit for tonight's (7:10 p.m. ET) East Regional semifinal against Butler.

"We're not concerned with his condition," Butler coach Todd Lickliter said Thursday. "We assume he'll be 100 percent, and we know how dangerous he is. To not prepare that way would not be wise."

Only the seedings seem to separate the No. 1 Sooners (26-6) and No. 12 Butler (27-5). They have nearly identical records and each relies on a pair of senior guards who have been friends for years. Butler's Darnell Archey met teammate Brandon Miller at a YMCA camp when he was 7, and Price and Quannas White played together in high school.

"The reason the team's been so successful is when you've got two guns like this in your back pocket, you know you're never out of a game," Butler center Joel Cornette said. "Regardless of their stature and size, they seem to shoulder the weight pretty well."

Indeed. Miller's runner in the lane with 6.6 seconds left gave the Bulldogs a 47-46 victory over fifth-seeded Mississippi State in the first round, and Archey was 8-for-9 on 3-pointers in Butler's comeback win over fourth-seeded Louisville.

While the underdog Bulldogs have elicited oohs and ahs from the crowds with their perimeter game - they hit 14 3-pointers against Louisville - the Sooners are no slouches. Oklahoma was 10-for-18 from long range in their first-round win over South Carolina State, and Price and White are 17-for-31 overall - better than the 19-for-40 Miller and Archey have hit.

The biggest difference between the teams is size, where the edge goes to Oklahoma. Archey is listed at 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds and Miller isn't much bigger. The Sooners have 6-5 guard Ebi Ere and 6-4 guard De'Angelo Alexander to counter.

"We don't have guys who are 260 pounds," said Cornette, at 6-9 and 240 pounds the Bulldogs' biggest player. "We've got guys who are 220 or 230. It's one of those games that we hope we're in. Hopefully, one of these two guys comes up with some more heroics to get us over the hump."

The Sooners have made it to the round of 16 with virtually no production from Price, who averages 19 points. He took just one shot, a 3-pointer that he made, in 11 minutes against South Carolina State and followed that with five points in 30 minutes against the Bears as he struggled to move laterally on defense and was used mostly as a decoy on offense.

"The X factor is Hollis," Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said, still worried about his star shooting guard. "Obviously, he's not 100 percent and Butler's on a big roll right now."

Although the Bulldogs are the lowest-seeded team remaining in the tournament and have made it this far for the first time in 41 years, Sampson didn't consider them an underdog at all.

"I can see where Cinderella would beat Mississippi State, but Cinderella doesn't come back 24 hours later and beat Louisville," he said. "They beat Mississippi State in Birmingham, and that's in the SEC's back yard. And they beat Louisville in Birmingham, which is a next-door neighbor. Cinderella doesn't do those things."

The Bulldogs, a bunch of blue-collar kids with crew cuts from a tiny Indianapolis school (enrollment is 4,200) know that, too.

"I like that we're here," Lickliter said. "If people want to label us, that's fine. You won't get very far unless you think you can. I would never want the players to sell themselves short."

Snubbed last year by the tournament selection committee despite 25 wins, Butler has more than left its mark this year.

"Talent gets you to the Sweet 16, and that's what they are, talented," Price said. "To be where they are today, then they've got to have great point guard play. They've just got a great team."

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