Since Oklahoma’s loss to Indiana in the Final Four last season, Sooner guards Hollis Price and Quannas White have frequently talked about making a return trip.
Sometimes their conversations come at odd hours.
“Last week, Quannas came to my room at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Price said. “He told me, ‘We’re so close to it.’ ”
The former teammates at St. Augustine High in New Orleans can realize a dream in the East Regional final today at Pepsi Arena. A victory by top-seeded Oklahoma (27-6) over third-seeded Syracuse (27-5) would earn Price and White a trip home for the Final Four on Saturday at the Superdome in New Orleans.
But the seniors know it won’t be easy.
Standing in their way is a young but talented Syracuse team that will have the advantage of playing before what amounts to a home crowd. Syracuse is about a two-hour drive from Albany.
“This is obviously going to be a road game,” Oklahoma Coach Kelvin Sampson said. “They’re going to have a huge crowd and it’s going to be an advantage for them.”
And that is far from the only hurdle confronting Oklahoma. Although Syracuse has seven underclassmen among its nine scholarship players, the Orangemen have won 11 of their last 12 games and never trailed in a 79-78 victory over Auburn on Friday in the Sweet 16.
Sampson scoffed at the notion that Oklahoma could easily exploit Syracuse’s inexperience.
“Talent will outweigh experience,” he said.
Syracuse’s kiddie corps starts with forward Carmelo Anthony, a 6-foot-8 freshman expected to make himself eligible for the NBA draft.
Anthony hasn’t played at the top of his game in three NCAA tournament games, but he has been good enough to help Syracuse make its first Elite Eight appearance since 1996.
“We don’t match up with him, but I don’t know who does,” Sampson said. “He’s the LeBron James of college basketball, except maybe a better player. What does LeBron do that Carmelo doesn’t do? I don’t think people realize how good this kid is.
“It’s hard to guard him in the post, and then he can hit threes.”
Oklahoma counters with its seasoned backcourt of Price and White, though both are battling injuries. Price has a strained left groin and White re-injured a troublesome left knee in the waning moments of Friday’s 65-54 victory over Butler.
Another senior, reserve guard Ebi Ere, overcame injuries to both wrists and shooting problems to score 25 points for the Sooners against Butler.
“They’re experienced; they know what you have to do to win,” Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said. “They’re probably one of the best defensive teams I’ve seen. They’ve got great guard play.
“They’re basically the same team that went to the Final Four last year and they added a great freshman.”
That freshman, Kevin Bookout, has made 17 of 20 shots in Oklahoma’s last two games. The 6-8, 260-pound forward had 16 points on eight-for-nine shooting against Butler.
Sampson said he knew Bookout was special when he recruited the multisport standout at tiny Stroud High in Oklahoma, where Bookout averaged 30 points and 16 rebounds, won state titles in the shotput and discus and set a state record in baseball with 65 career home runs.
Sampson said the inside play of Bookout, center Johnnie Gilbert and reserve Jabahri Brown will be crucial against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense.
“I don’t know if you can attack a zone without going inside of it,” Sampson said. “Kevin is going to be important. We can’t settle for too many three-point shots.”
Syracuse is equally concerned about Oklahoma’s man-to-man defense, which frustrated Butler guards Brandon Miller and Darnell Archey into three-of-12 combined shooting.
“I know they’re going to hassle us all game and push us around to try and rattle us,” said Gerry McNamara, Syracuse’s freshman point guard. “We have to stay composed.”
The Orangemen have benefited from the play of three reserves -- freshman guard Billy Edelin, sophomore guard Josh Pace and junior forward Jeremy McNeil. They have averaged a combined 28 points in three NCAA tournament games.