Maui Preview, part 1: Oklahoma

On an island far, far away, yet somehow still part of this nation, UK plays Oklahoma in the first round of the Maui Invitational Monday. Here’s three things to know/watch for this game (5:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2):

1. The potential unveiling of a UK zone — UK head coach John Calipari has relied on man-to-man coverage his entire career, and succeeded with it. UK, both last year and so far this year, have been man-to-man teams. This year’s version has thrown in some full-court press. But with a team lacking in size but plentiful in length (think Terrence Jones, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins), Calipari has said recently he has a “funky” zone that he has created/innovated. A zone would let the Cats to clog the lane while still being able to rotate and close out on perimeter shooters. Neither Calipari or the players have fully explained the zone, so watching it in action will be interesting. Calipari said the zone might get employed in Maui, although if UK shows it can handle Oklahoma man-to-man the new defense might be put on hold.

Brett Dawson of the Courier-Journal has the full story here.

2. The perimeter battle — Oklahoma shoots the ball well from 3-point land. UK shoots the ball well from 3-point land. This doesn’t mean that whoever makes the most threes wins the game, but both teams have the potential to pour in points from outside.

For Oklahoma, Cade Davis and Steven Pledger shot 15-of-28 from 3-point range in their last game against Texas Southern. They combined for 44 points in the contest. While that game was better than their typical performance (at least for the short sample size of this season) of 38.8 percent, it shows that Oklahoma has shooters.

UK has been shooting extremely well from outside, making 47.7 percent of its threes. Doron Lamb is 6-of-9 on the year, and against Portland he drained two 3-pointers immediately following a Portland 3 that kept momentum with UK. Brandon Knight is 6-of-12 and Darius Miller is 5-of-9.

However, UK was able to shut down the last sharpshooter they encountered (Portland’s Jared Stohl, the most accurate 3-point shooter in the nation last year, shot 1-for-7), with DeAndre Liggins guarding him. Portland was able to get open looks, though, and it will be interesting to see if Oklahoma gets the same opportunities — and if they can take advantage.

3. Oklahoma is just as inexperienced than UK, but less talented — The Sooners only have one returning starter from a 13-18 team in senior guard Cade Davis. Davis is averaging 12.7 points per game. The two leading scorers for Oklahoma are sophomores. Andrew Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-8, 237-pound forward, is averaging 15.3 points and 6.7 rebounds. He’s a relatively big body who is having a solid year so far. Steven Pledger is the second half of the Sooner’s backcourt and is scoring 16.7 points per game.

Oklahoma head coach Jeff Capel said in pre-Maui interviews that rebounding would be the concern all year for his team. Their tallest player is 6-foot-9 and is averaging 9 rebounds per game. So, a team short on experience, with no proven rebounders — sounds a lot like a description that could apply to UK.

The Sooners appear to be at the same stage as UK — still finding its identity while trying to create chemistry on the court. In its second game of the season, Oklahoma needed a last-second 3-pointer to send the game into overtime … with North Carolina Central. Oklahoma is rebuilding from the past two years, which saw players such as Blake Griffin, Willie Warren and Tiny Gallon carry the program, and UK simply has more talent across the board.

Breakdown: UK is the better team, and there doesn’t appear to be any “intangibles” that would swing the game in Oklahoma’s favor. This first-round game should go UK’s way.