TULSA, Okla. -- The NCAA tournament is back here for the first time in 26 years, and in a shiny modern arena -- the BOK Center.
Historically speaking, this has been a good town in which to launch a big tournament performance. In five previous NCAA tourneys in Tulsa, four teams have started their Final Four run: Houston in 1982, Notre Dame in 1978, Louisville in 1975 and Kansas in 1974.
The Jayhawks, here as the No. 1 seed in the Southwest Region, certainly hope that history repeats, as opposed to their catastrophic NCAA history elsewhere in the state. Kansas was shocked in the second round last year in Oklahoma City, and in the first round by Bucknell in 2005.
A brief breakdown of the two day games Friday:
What to watch: This will be a primo interior matchup, and the winner in the paint may win the game. The Golden Grizzlies have one of the best big men in the country in 6-foot-11 Keith Benson, the Summit League Player of the Year who averages 18 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.6 blocked shots. But he’s going up against the Longhorns’ array of physical postmen, led by freshman Tristan Thompson (13.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks). Texas might be the best interior defensive team in the nation.
Who to watch: The most talented player on the floor will be Texas forward Jordan Hamilton, a versatile scorer who at 6-foot-7 is a matchup nightmare. Most importantly for the Longhorns, Hamilton appeared to get his shooting stroke back at the Big 12 tourney in Kansas City, where he made 48 percent of his shots. In the previous six games, half of them losses, Hamilton made just 31 percent of his field goals. If Hamilton is hot, it will be tough for Oakland to win.
Why to watch: This has upset potential. Oakland is a very talented offensive team that got valuable NCAA tourney experience last season and played a rigorous non-conference schedule to prepare for this moment. Texas is a national title contender -- but is also not invincible. And if Thursday afternoon showed us anything, anyone can be beaten -- or at least taken down to the wire.
What they’re saying: “I don’t think we’re scared,” Benson said. “We’re coming in with the mindset of getting the upset.” … Thompson, on Texas’ late-season struggle: “To be honest, we totally forgot about that. We’re not focused on what happened in the past. Situations happen, and we got the losses and that’s good for us to experience those heartaches. But now it’s tournament time. We know it’s a lose-or-go-home situation, so now we’ve got to pull up our socks and it’s time to grind.” (It is assumed the freshman meant win-or-go-home, but that was the quote.) … Oakland coach Greg Kampe, on seeing President Barack Obama pick Texas in his bracket for ESPN: “I didn’t vote for him either, so I guess we’re even now.”
Of note: The Grizzlies have played seven teams in this tournament and went 1-6 against them. The victory was at Tennessee. The losses were against Illinois, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and West Virginia. Texas is 8-5 against the NCAA field. … Oakland has won eight straight and averaged more than 90 points in that span. In other words, it would love to turn this game into a shootout. … Texas has advanced to 12 straight NCAA tournaments, and has won at least one game in eight of those.
What to watch: Which green group handles the pressure of the tournament best? The Wildcats have only two players who played meaningful minutes in Arizona’s previous NCAA tournament game -- Kyle Fogg and Jamelle Horne combined to play 57 minutes and scored five points in a Sweet 16 blowout against Louisville in 2009. Not a single current Tiger played in Memphis’ previous tournament game, a Sweet 16 loss to Missouri in ’09. The Tigers’ coach, Josh Pastner, has never led a team into a Big Dance game either.
Who to watch: The best player on the floor is Arizona forward Derrick Williams, a 19-point, 8-rebound guy who can get his points efficiently -- and from anywhere. He’s a 62 percent shooter, a crazy 60 percent from 3-point range and 74 percent at the line, where he takes 8.5 foul shots per game. Memphis has some size in Tarik Black and Will Coleman, but the question is whether either can check Williams all over the court.
Why to watch: To see which traditionally powerful program is on the rebound fastest. Both missed the Big Dance last season after coaching changes, and both now have taken steps back to national contender status. Arizona (four Final Fours, one national title) won the Pac-10 regular-season title this year to re-establish itself in Year 2 under Sean Miller. Memphis (three Final Fours, no titles) had to earn its bid by winning the Conference USA title on UTEP’s home court in Year 2 under Josh Pastner.
What they’re saying: Coleman, on the youth of the Tigers: “We’re all goofy. We’re a goofy bunch of guys that just like to have fun, and there is nothing wrong with that."
Williams, on choosing Arizona over Memphis in recruiting: “That’s all I did is ate barbecue the whole time (on his official visit to Memphis). It was a great time, a great experience for me. … Pastner did recruit me very hard. Like I said, I couldn’t go wrong either way whether I chose Arizona or Memphis, but I’m glad I chose here.”
Pastner, on the feeling of winning the C-USA tournament Saturday and seeing Memphis in the field the following day: “Those 40 hours, it was probably the greatest 40 hours of just adrenaline, of emotion, of just being happy that you can experience. If somebody came to me today and wanted to give me $100 million to trade for that, I wouldn’t. I mean that.”
Of note: Tulsa is a Memphis-friendly location. The city is only about a six-hour drive, so expect a fair amount of Tiger blue in the stands. … Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said he spoke with Miller earlier this week and that Miller has “zero interest” in other jobs, most notably North Carolina State, where he was a former assistant coach.