Coach Billy Tubbs does resemble Nicholson, right down to his intonation, if you accept Nicholson with an Oklahoma twang. And coaching players with such nicknames as "Amazing," "Mookie," "Sky," "Soul Man," "General," ''Creator," "T-Love" and "Fat Lady" may get a little crazy.
But don't let that fool you. The Sooners, who invade Kansas City for the Final Four this weekend, can flat out play.
They have won 34 games. They average 104 points per game. They win by an
average margin of 23 points. They force their opponents into 24 turnovers per game and steal the ball an average of 12.6 times per contest.
And they have fun. Boy, do they ever have fun.
"I don't ever see how one of Coach Tubbs' teams could ever be under
pressure," guard Ricky "Amazing" Grace said. "We're always loose. We realize it's just a game, we know how to enjoy life, and we just go out there and score as much as we can."
"It's a lot of fun to play here," added forward Harvey "General" Grant. ''The coach lets us have our fun, and he makes us get the job done."
It's so loose that Tubbs sometimes joins his players for comedy routines. Consider the exchange between coach and player when Stacey "Sky" King explained how much fun it was to be 6-foot-10 and unleashed in Tubbs' running and pressing style of play.
"The system we play is that defense comes first," King said the day before the Sooners' game against Villanova in the Southeast Regional final, ''and we create offense and turnovers off the defense. It's a great system. So if you're a big person who likes to run and you're 6-9 or 6-10, come to Oklahoma. . . ."
Tubbs turned his head sharply toward King, and in his best stage whisper, told his player: "Seven-footers, too."
"Yeah, 7-footers, too," King added with a sheepish smile. "It's a nice place with a good atmosphere and a good coach who works hard."
Gosh, if the Sooners were any looser, they'd be likely to bypass Kansas City and head straight for Las Vegas. Or Hollywood.
In this regard, they are a reflection of their coach. Tubbs has endeared
himself to fans and reporters with his one-liners - "You can't trick us,
because we aren't paying attention," was a favorite before the Villanova game - but he has alienated opposing coaches who feel he is piling up the score.
To be sure, the Oklahoma players aren't lacking in confidence. You could call them cocky.
"I'm like a juggernaut," King said. "I just keep getting better and better. I add a new dimension to this team with my quickness and running ability. I'm a guard trapped in a big man's body.
"Last year, we didn't have a center who could run up and down the court, so that kind of slowed it down. This year, we're beating people a lot more on the fastbreaks. I'm going down and getting dunks."
But there is more to Oklahoma than just a wisecracking coach who unleashes a bunch of players. The Sooners are more than your basic one-dimensional, run- and-gun team.
Of course, a triple-digit scoring average - which included 20 100-point games and outputs of 152 points against Centenary, 151 against Dayton and 144 against Oral Roberts - obscures the fact that this team plays any defense at all. But Tubbs will tell you - persistently - that it has been the Sooners' defense that is responsible for getting them this far.
"No mas - that's our theme on defense," Grace says.
Basically, the Sooners' game is a press that covers the entire court for the entire game. It's a defense that requires not only ability but also skill, stamina and quickness. And it also shows to the world that Tubbs can coach.
Tubbs doesn't care about receiving recognition for his coaching ability, but he hopes people recognize the role of the Oklahoma defense.
"We play the hardest defense there is to play," he said. "We legitimately cover 100 percent of the floor, and not everybody can do that. It's easy to pack your defense back and stand around and wave your arms in the air. We actually try to guard people.
"People have been seeing us play defense and now think we can play defense. But our players play hard on defense, and they've always played that way. It's just that people didn't realize that until this year."
It was that relentless defense that eventually told the tale in last Saturday's game against Villanova. The Sooners forced 11 turnovers on the weary Wildcats in the second half and won going away, 78-59.
And it's the defense that has impressed opposing coaches along the way.
"If you ask me to say one word about Oklahoma, I'd say, 'Defense,' " said Auburn coach Sonny Smith, whose Tigers were eliminated, 107-87, by the Sooners in the NCAA's second round. "I know that may surprise you. They can beat you inside and they can beat you outside, but they beat us with their defense. My God, I thought they all had four hands."
There have been times this season when coaches were tempted to check whether Grace and backcourt mate Daron "Mookie" Blaylock had four hands. Blaylock leads the nation in steals at 3.8 per game, and he needs two tomorrow against Arizona to break the NCAA record of 142 set this season by Aldwin Ware of Florida A&M. Grace grabs an average of 2.8 steals.
Naturally, a full-bore style all over the court could tend to make a team a mite fatigued, but the Sooners keep running and come back for more. Tubbs set the stage in preseason by having his players take aerobics.
King remembers it well.
"At first, we thought it was just for girls, but our instructor was tough," he said. "She worked us hard. She even made the coaches do it. It is definitely the best shape I've ever been in. Even my ear lobes were sore."
With that as a foundation, the Sooners then stayed in great shape, thanks to Tubbs' intense practices.
"Our practices are conducive to our style of play," said swing man Dave ''Soul Man" Sieger. "We're always ready to run. We run all the time in practice, and that helps us in the games. All of our practices are like full- scale scrimmages."
Such talk of full-time defense may tend to downplay the offense, but that's hard to do with the numbers the Sooners have posted.
The inside is manned by the talented duo of King (22.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 54.3 percent from the field) and Grant (21.1, 9.5, 55.1 percent), a 6-8 senior who is considered a sure first-round draft choice. King's performance has been particularly impressive, since the junior center averaged less than seven points per game last season.
In the backcourt are matching former teammates at Midland (Texas) Junior
College, Blaylock (16.7 points, 6.0 assists) and Grace (14.8, 7.4). Both can fill it up from the outside, and they join with Sieger to give the Sooners three imposing shooters from three-point range.
"They have great balance between their inside and their outside games," said Louisville coach Denny Crum, whose Cardinals lost, 108-98, to Oklahoma in the regional semifinals.
"They have great one-on-one talent. They do a great job from the perimeter. If you double-team them inside, they're going to beat it, because they get the unmolested three-pointer. There's no question they can score from anywhere. They can flat stick 'em in the basket."
The Sooners aren't shy about shooting the three. They have averaged 21 attempts per game and are hitting at a 37.4 percent clip.
"The only adjustment we had to make (for the three-point field goal) was to move in closer," Tubbs quipped. "We were shooting from five feet farther out for two, and now we can move in closer and go for three."
Asked his opinion of the three-pointer, Grace replied, "I like a shot that gets you one extra point. I like that shot better than the others."
That's the story with Oklahoma. Loose. Fearless. Cocky. But that's the facade. This is a team on a mission.
The Sooners had been expected to go far last season. They were led by guard Tim McCalister and forward Darryl "Choo" Kennedy - the school's No. 2 and No. 3 career scorers, behind Wayman Tisdale - but they lost to Iowa, 93-91, in the semifinals of the West Regional and ended up 24-10.
With McCalister and Kennedy gone, the Sooners were expected to rebuild this season. Indeed, in the preseason poll of reporters covering the Big 8, Oklahoma received only two first-place votes, compared with 36 for Missouri and 17 for Kansas. To make matters worse, of the six freshmen signed by Tubbs, four had to sit out because of Proposition 48, and another left school.
But Tubbs retooled quickly by bringing in five junior-college players. Blaylock led the parade, following the path Grace took the year before, and he was joined by key reserve Andre "Creator" Wiley.
Oklahoma barely missed a step. After 13 games, the Sooners were second in the nation in scoring - trailing only the NBA Denver Nuggets. During this time, they forced nearly 31 turnovers per game, fleecing Centenary for 54.
They did lose three games, but they put together winning streaks of 14, 12 and eight games. They won the Big 8 regular-season and postseason championships, and they haven't stopped yet. After being put to the test last weekend by Villanova's deliberate offensive style, they proved to the nation they could win at any speed.
"We know what we have to do, and we're here to take care of business," King said. "Other teams have come in here with the same attitude, but it
hasn't worked out as it has now. We have that attitude to play hard, and we don't think that anything is going to stop us."
Certainly, the Sooners have what it takes to win this weekend.
And have some fun doing it.