Oklahoma hits the hardwood for keeps today for the first time of the 2009-10 season. Their opponent is Mount Saint Mary's from Emmitsburgh, Maryland. Before you write them off as a non-conference warm-up opponent there are some things that you need to know about them that actually qualifies them as a quality opponent. To help explain I'd like to introduce you to Greg Swatek, he covers the Mountaineers for the Frederick News-Post, who was gracious enough to help us get acclimated to OU's season opening opponent.
CC Machine: Give us a general description of the Mt. Saint Mary's basketball team and what the expectations are for this season.
GS: Expectations for the team are quite high. They were picked by the Northeast Conference coaches as the preseason No. 1 in the league. This is a team that went to the NCAA tournament in 2008 and won the play-in game. There are eight players from that team that are still on the roster, including five big contributors. Senior Jeremy Goode, a 5-9 speedy point guard, is generally considered to be the team's best player. The team does have some questions in the frontcourt. It doesn't have a player taller than 6-7 on the roster. The two main big men from last season graduated. Junior forward Shawn Atupem (6-7) is expected to be the main scorer up front. He is tough to guard because of his speed and range on his jumper. The team is athletic and likes to play at a quick pace. They play aggressive defense, which is the team's calling card.
CC Machine: You wrote an article a couple of weeks ago about Will Holland's role in the offense. Tell us a little about him and some of the other leaders of the team.
GS: Will Holland was a starter on the team that went to the NCAA's two years ago, but didn't start last year because other players on the team earned his minutes. This sort of sent him into a funk because he never quite grasped why he wasn't starting any more. It lasted for most of last season. This year, he is in a much better frame of mind. He understands his role on the team and how he is expected to contribute. He can start in a pinch, but will likely come off the bench as a sixth man. He can be valuable as shooter and a slasher to the hoop. The other top players on the team are Jeremy Goode, who has a lightning quick first step and good ball fakes, and Shawn Atupem, who can play facing the basket or with his back to it. He's a true small forward who's basically being asked to play power forward.
CC Machine: How strong is the Northeast Conference expected to be this year?
GS: The NEC has been improving in recent years. It's still a conference with a pretty low RPI, but the champion last year, Robert Morris, earned a No. 15 seed in the NCAA's. In previous years, the winner of the conference, like Mount St. Mary's, has been slotted for the play-in game. The teams in the conference have been upgrading their non-conference schedules. In addition to Oklahoma, Mount St. Mary's will play Pitt, Georgetown, American and Siena on the road this year. The latter two, of course, were tournament teams last year. If Mount St. Mary's or another team puts together a strong season and wins the NEC tournament, the league should have another good look at another No. 15 seed.
CC Machine: Share with us some of your general thoughts on the Sooners.
GS: There's no doubt that Oklahoma is one of the top teams in the country and should be one of the teams challenging Kansas for the Big 12 title. I am looking forward to seeing what kind of impact the two heralded freshman, Tiny Gallon and Tommy Mason-Griffin, have right away.
CC Machine: Aside from winning what would be a measure of success Mountaineers in this game?
GS: Mount St. Mary's probably doesn't expect to win this game, but I know the team really wants to give Oklahoma a fight. Last year, it hung around with major conference schools like Georgetown and Virginia Tech before falling on the road by reasonably close margins. I do know the players and coaches are tired of these close calls against these big schools. They would love to pull an upset in one of these games. However, they'd probably view anything within 10 points as a good start to the season.
With the football season drowning in the mire of disappointment it'll be nice to cheer for a team again that has achievable goals. Which brings me to the next question, what do you think are reasonable expectations for this squad?