They have discovered a new sport at Oklahoma to fill the void between fall football and, like the football-playing Sooners, the basketballers ram the ball down the other team's throat on offense and dare them to score on defense.

The new Sooner heroes are Raymond Whitley, Al Beal, Terry Stotts, John McCullough and Aaron Curry, having put Billy Sims and Thomas Lott on the back burner.

"That's fine with me," said football quarterback Lott. "Maybe we'll get a national championship this year after all. Who cares if the ball is round?"

Dave Bliss cares, for one. He is the cool young Oklahoma coach, a former Bobby Knight assistant who has guided the Sooners to their first Big Eight basketball championship in 30 years and an impressive second-round victory over Texas in the NCAA on Saturday.

That advanced the upstart Sooners (21-9) to the Midwest Regional semifinal Thursday in Cincinnati against top-ranked Indiana State (30-0).

The Sooners are not awed.

This is a unique team that does things differently from most. The Sooners commit the alleged defensive sin of giving up the baseline drive. They look for 20 footers to shoot and they have no curfew and no training rules.

The Sooners have made all of those no-nos work for one reason: Bliss has recruited character as much as talent. His team has a cumulative grade-point average of almost 3.0. There is never a discipline problem. The team plays as well together as any in the tournament.

Individually, the Sooners do not have overpowering talent.

"We aren't a great team," said Bliss. "We aren't a real physical group and we don't have the talent to press a whole lot, but our intelligence and ability to play together can keep us from being embarrassed."

The Sooners won the regular season Big Eight title and, proving it was no fluke, grabbed the postseason tournament.

All of this has caught this football-crazed community by surprise, but it loves it.

Four years ago, 1,500 was an average crowd for Sooner basketball. Now, it's 11,000 a game and standing room only at Lloyd Noble Center.

The mailman used to dump bushels of mail on football Coach Barry Switzer's desk and hardly wave to Bliss. Not anymore. The mail and phone calls are pouring into the basketball office and interest is greater in the sport than ever before.

"The school is so excited because this is the first time this has happened in basketball. They're used to it in football," Bliss said.

"Basketball is finally here to stay," said Whitley, the 6-foot-3 guard who scored 25 points in the victory over Texas.

"No matter what we do, football will still be No. 1, but at least people down here know what basketball is now and they love it," said forward McCullough.

"It's never going to be like football," Bliss added, "but no one expects it."

Bliss came to Norman four years ago after serving as an assistant to Knight at both West Point and Indiana. He has blended his coaching philosophies with those of Knight and made it work at Oklahoma.

Oklahoma doesn't play much like Indiana. "I'm a lot more offensive-oriented than Knight," Bliss said. "I have to make things more interesting. I can't win games by 50-40. I have to do it 90-80 and convert fans to basketball. They are used to the wishbone and piling up points here.

Bliss had to go outside Oklahoma for his players. Whitley, a sophomore, is from Indianapolis, Beal from Deerfield Beach, Fla.; McCullough from Lima, Ohio; Stotts from Bloomington, Ind., and Curry from Buffalo, N.Y. The only Oklahoman on the team is a little-used walk-on guard, Don Calvert.

"Football, baseball and wrestling are the big sports in the high schools around here so there isn't a wealth of talent," Bliss explained. "Do you want a winner or do you want a homegrown man? You can't have both and I'd prefer a winner. The Midwestern and Eastern kids play more my style and I find it easier to coach them to do what I want."

Whitley is the Sooner big-city playground star and he admits he had to change his game drastically. "All of us are good one-on-one players, but we learned to play together. We knew that was the only way we could become winners," Whitley said.

Defensively, Oklahoma plays a sagging man to man and tries to funnel everything into Beal, even if it means giving up the baseline at times.

Oklahomans are becoming used to sizable numbers, almost as much as they ar eto a Billy Sims 200-yards rushing, four-touchdown day.

"They're learning," McCullough said. "We're winning people over because we're bringing excitement back to Oklahoma sports. Something is missing in football because you know Oklahoma will win. We've added suspense in our game. No one knows what will happen."

One thing is certain, no matter what happens against Indiana State on Thursday -- there is no longer a void in Oklahoma between football and spring football.