March 19, 2003

By OWEN CANFIELD
AP Sports Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY - Since leading Oklahoma to the Big 12 tournament title, Hollis Price has been stuck inside the trainer's room.

Price strained his left groin and needed help as he hobbled off the court in the closing seconds of Sunday's victory over Missouri. But he wouldn't dream of being out of the lineup Thursday when the top-seeded Sooners (24-6) play 16th-seeded South Carolina State in the NCAA East Regional.

"I'm feeling better," Price said Wednesday. "After the game Sunday I was a little shook up, but (trainer) Alex Brown has done a great job with me so far."

Oklahoma and South Carolina State (20-10) tip off 30 minutes after the other East Regional game, between eighth-seeded California (21-8) and ninth-seeded North Carolina State (18-12).

In the West Regional here, No. 2 seed Kansas (25-7) plays No. 15 Utah State (24-8) and No. 7 Memphis (23-6) goes against No. 10 Arizona State (19-11).

The Sooners need a productive Price if they hope to get back to the Final Four. Coach Kelvin Sampson acknowledges that this team isn't as good on offense as last year's team, which lost to Indiana in the national semifinals.

Price, the Big 12 player of the year, has been Oklahoma's most consistent scorer, averaging 19.5 points a game. The senior guard had only one game in which he failed to score in double figures, and he continued to carry his team through conference play as Ebi Ere - the Sooners' high scorer in eight of the first 12 games - struggled with his shooting.

Sampson said his players were exhausted after the conference tournament, so they didn't practice Monday or Tuesday. Price was especially worn out because of the time spent guarding much bigger players.

"Hollis went there a big, strong, robust, buffed, 6-foot, 165 pounds, and he came back kind of a broken down, beat up, worn out, 6-foot, 160," Sampson said. "But he'll be fine."

South Carolina State got into the tournament by winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament. The Bulldogs, who also won the regular-season title, are in the NCAA tournament for the fifth time. They're 0-4, losing most recently to Stanford in 2000.

Coach Cy Alexander said 16th-seeded teams aren't as talented as top seeds, and he expects that will be the case Thursday. But he said the Bulldogs won many of their games simply by outworking their opponents.

"This is the biggest stage in college basketball," he said. "I think these guys deserve this opportunity. I think they'll come out tomorrow and compete."

Moses Malone Jr., the team's second-leading scorer, said the proliferation of young players leaving early for the NBA draft and the number of players who transfer to smaller Division I schools will eventually result in a top-seeded team losing in the first round.

"One day a 16 seed will win. Hopefully, we'll be the first one," he said.

California will be playing an Atlantic Coast Conference team for the first time since 1999, when the Bears played Clemson in the NIT. But North Carolina State isn't like most ACC teams: The Wolfpack play a style similar to Princeton's, spreading the floor and trying for easy baskets off backdoor cuts.

"They also have five guys that can shoot the ball," Cal coach Ben Braun said. "I don't care what offense you run. If you have five guys who can shoot, it makes it hard to defend."

The Wolfpack are led by sophomore Julius Hodge, who averages 17.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. North Carolina State will be smaller than the Golden Bears, who have yet to lose a game when they have outrebounded the opponent.

"It's not about size, it's about the size of your heart," Hodge said. "If you go out and play, you're going to come out victorious."