-- Returning to the Final Four has been close to an obsession for Oklahoma. It started almost a year ago, moments after a team almost certainly superior to this season's was upset by Indiana in the NCAA tournament's semifinal round.
"That's all we've been talking about," said senior guard Hollis Price. "Late at night, at 3 a.m. Quannas [White, the senior point guard] would come in and say: 'We're so close to it.' "
Syracuse also is on the cusp of the Final Four, needing to beat the Sooners on Sunday in the East Region final to advance to New Orleans. Even though three freshmen would play key roles, its preseason expectations also were high -- and kept increasing as come-from-behind victories in the second half mounted to a remarkable 14.
"That convinced all of us," Coach Jim Boeheim said, "that we could do whatever we wanted to do."
The teams are similar: resourceful, tough and smart. The Sooners are far more experienced, with guards Price and White, swingman Ebi Ere and two other reserves having contributed significantly to last season's 31-5 record.
Syracuse has the extraordinary player, freshman Carmelo Anthony, capable of carrying a team for long stretches.
"If I have a choice between a four-year kid who's a really good college player or taking Carmelo Anthony [out of high school]," said Oklahoma Coach Kelvin Sampson, "guess which one I'm going to take?"
At 6 feet 8, 220 pounds, Anthony can step outside and make three-pointers as well as slip inside for rebounds.
"He's probably better [at offensive rebounding] than any small forward I've ever seen," Boeheim said.
Anthony was scoreless in the first half of Friday's victory over Auburn, partly because of a trick defense and partly because of his lack of patience, then had 18 points in the second. Shortly after halftime, he stole the ball on one end and quickly popped in a three-pointer from the right wing. With less than a minute left and Syracuse ahead by four points, he missed a short flip but was quick enough to grab the ball and put it in.
"We'll try not to let him catch the ball," said Oklahoma's Ere, who along with freshman starter De'Angelo Alexander probably will check Anthony. "If he does, we'll double him."
The Orangemen (27-5) quickly became comfortable with Anthony and the other fine freshman, shooting guard Gerry McNamara, because they worked hard and could help the team win. They later adjusted to the addition of freshman point guard Billy Edelin (Silver Spring), who missed the first 12 games for violating the NCAA's rule on outside competition while serving a school-imposed sanction last year.
Backup center Jeremy McNeil has become a defensive force, probably leading the country in blocks per minute if the NCAA had such a category. He had four against Auburn.
What with Syracuse, N.Y., 140 miles away, the Orangemen will have a decided advantage in crowd support. But Oklahoma (27-6) will be at least a slight favorite, except to the Syracuse players.
"We don't consider ourselves underdogs," Anthony said. "But we have to focus and just be ready to play."
For the Sooners, blending freshman inside force Kevin Bookout and freshman small forward Alexander was a key to success. Their nonconference schedule also was helpful, and it included Connecticut, Mississippi State and Michigan State. Princeton was useful as preparation for the Butler game Friday night.
However, no team on Oklahoma's schedule consistently plays the sort of zone Syracuse uses. But it can be exploited, as Georgetown showed in three games and Auburn did Friday. An agile player flashing into the middle for the ball and either shooting or passing frequently works well.
Ere is such a player. But he is vulnerable, playing with a broken bone in his left wrist since shortly before the Big 12 Conference tournament and a brace on his right wrist to keep it from bending too much when he shoots. He hurt the right wrist during a fall in the first round NCAA victory over South Carolina State.
"Every time I pull up to shoot there's pain," he said. "It's pain in my wrist after I catch, when I dribble, when I rebound. But I've got to play through it to give [teammates] a rest."
Sampson looked back at last year and earlier this season and was pleased.
"I didn't know if we were good enough to be here," he said, referring to losing star forward Aaron McGhee and replacing him with freshman Bookout. "Ere struggled [and later hurt his wrist] and Quannas had a knee problem that probably was a little more serious than people thought."
Price has played the last three games with a strained left groin muscle. With the Indiana game still fresh, he and the other veterans will try to be relaxed yet determined.
"They played harder," Ere said of Indiana. "They wanted to win more. We don't want to go through that any more."