Oklahoma gearing up for Paris' sophomore season

Tuesday, October 10th 2006, 9:44 pm
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ After becoming the first freshman All-America selection in women's basketball history, what can Courtney Paris do as an encore?

The 6-foot-4 center led the nation in rebounding and also finished in the top 10 in scoring, blocks and field goal percentage last season as she led Oklahoma on an undefeated run through conference play and the Big 12 tournament. But can she be even better as a sophomore?

``I think the thing with Courtney is she can get 2 or 3 or 4 percent better in a number of categories, and that's how she's going to improve,'' Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said Tuesday. ``The better you are, the harder it is to gauge improvement.''

Paris averaged 21.9 points and 15 rebounds, racking up 33 double-doubles in Oklahoma's 31-5 season, which ended with a loss to Stanford in the NCAA tournament's round of 16. Over the summer, she was the top scorer and rebounder on the under-20 U.S. national team that won a gold medal in Brazil.

``She's already better,'' Coale said. ``She's better than the last game she played.''

Coale said Paris' footwork and defense are both improved, as is her ability to establish position in the lane. But it's more than just her basketball skills.

``I think that she continues to see that there are lots of ways to affect a team that don't have anything to do with rebounding and scoring points,'' Coale said, ``and that's a valuable lesson to learn.''

With practice set to open Friday, the Sooners bring back their entire starting lineup as well as Ashley Paris, Courtney's twin and also a McDonald's All-American. They've lost two senior reserves, but have restocked with five freshmen, including Abi Olajuwon, the daughter of NBA great Hakeem Olajuwon.

All of that has Oklahoma pondering the possibility of a national championship, something the Sooners narrowly missed in 2002 when they made it to the title game against Connecticut.

``That's why Courtney and Ashley came here. They wanted to come here and do that thing in a place that it's never been done,'' Coale said. ``They had the type of freshman year that put us in a position to have a shot at that. In October, that's all you ask for is a shot.''

Oklahoma appeared poised for a run at the Final Four last season after going 19-0 against Big 12 competition, including three wins against defending NCAA champion Baylor. It was the first time a women's team had run the table in the conference.

``You look back on 19-0 undefeated and think that that was an easy thing to do, that's ridiculous. Anybody who would think that is absolutely crazy,'' Coale said.

``I'll be trying to convince those three freshman that did it that this just doesn't happen all the time. Lots of things happened and fell into place in order for us to do it. But by the same token, that's not going to be the measuring stick.''

Instead, Oklahoma's success will be measured on how far into the postseason it can go. And no one will play a bigger role in determining that than an older, wiser and maybe even better Courtney Paris.

``She knows what it's all about. She knows what a long, hard grind it is. She knows she can't get too up or too down. She knows you've got to be good every night,'' Coale said. ``She's figured all those things out and when she figures it out, she becomes a different monster.''