EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As the East Regional's second seed, Massachusetts is flexing the type of muscle that appears to have the Minutemen headed to Seattle for their first Final Four.
Behind a suffocating defense and a superb front line led by senior forward Lou Roe and sophomore center Marcus Camby, UMass has won 11 of its past 12 games and has barely broken a sweat while passing its first three NCAA tournament tests by an average of 21 points.
But as the Minutemen prepare for their first regional final today at the Meadowlands Arena, they are turning a wary eye toward the Oklahoma State Cowboys, perhaps the Final Eight's biggest surprise.
The No. 4 seed Cowboys, guided by 59-year-old coach Eddie Sutton, got the Minutemen's attention with Friday night's 71-66 upset of top seed Wake Forest. Actually, the Cowboys long ago gained an admirer in Massachusetts coach John Calipari.
"He [Sutton] is one of the great coaches," said Calipari, who at 36 has transformed UMass from a moribund Atlantic 10 representative into one of the nation's premier programs.
"His teams play fundamentally outstanding basketball. When you talk about defense and the way they guard people, it's about discipline. That means the coach has the respect of the players. Every year, Oklahoma State has a great defensive team. On offense, they set the screens and the cuts and do the fundamental things. They're a talented team that plays under control and is very physical. It's a pleasure to watch them play."
Oklahoma State is also moving into unfamiliar territory, but Sutton isn't. The last time the Cowboys went to the Final Eight was 1965, which was five years before Sutton got his start in the collegiate ranks. Since then, he has amassed 552 victories at four schools. Although he has never won a national title, Sutton took Arkansas to the Final Four in 1978 and to the regional finals in 1979, before taking Kentucky to the regional final in 1986.
In his fifth season at Oklahoma State, Sutton has the Cowboys gunning for the school's first national title in 49 years. And he has done it by molding them the same way he assembled his teams at Creighton in the early 1970s.
"If you're going to be successful, you define the role each player is going to have," Sutton said. "Every one of them plays defense, if they're going to play for us. Our defense is what's carried us for the last two months."
The Cowboys have been stingy all season, especially in their past six games -- all victories -- in which they have held each opponent under 41 percent shooting and 70 points. They are allowing only 55.7 points per game in the NCAAs.
The puzzle started coming together four years ago, when two in-state recruits from small towns -- a raw, hulking 7-foot center named Bryant Reeves and a hot-shooting guard named Randy Rutherford -- decided to come play for Sutton.
Today, Reeves, now a two-time Big Eight Player of the Year who goes by the nickname "Big Country," and Rutherford form the heart of the Cowboys. They account for 53 percent of the team's offense.
But the Cowboys are still playing because they are a team long on versatility and resources.
Take the Wake Forest game. Reeves, bottled up by Tim Duncan, the Demon Deacons' terrific center, missed 11 of 15 shots, but still grabbed nine rebounds, got to the foul line eight times (and made seven) and set some of the nastiest picks this side of Stillwater for teammates such as Rutherford, who led the way with 23 points on 7-for-14 shooting.
Rutherford also pulled down a team-high 11 rebounds and did not commit a turnover in 37 minutes.
The front line of Scott Pierce, Terry Collins (torn tendon in index finger on shooting hand) and Reeves made only seven of 27 shots. Collins and Pierce combined for only five points.
But sophomore swingman Chianti Roberts came off the bench to BTC score 13 points and grab six rebounds, and reserve forward Jason Skaer scored seven huge points in the second half.
And point guard Andre Owens, never known for his scoring, ran the offense smoothly and shut down Wake Forest guard Randolph Childress, the Deacons' top scorer, over the last eight minutes.
Owens pressured Childress into the turnover in the closing seconds that ended Wake Forest's 12-game winning streak.
"Me and Randy are definitely the primary scorers, but we have the types of players who know their roles," Reeves said. "Between me and Randy and Childress and Duncan, we pretty much canceled each other out, but we had other guys step up and elevate their games."
On paper, today's game favors the deeper, more athletic Minutemen, who are playing with a championship chip on their shoulders. But, as Wake Forest coach Dave Odom said, don't count out the Cowboys.
"They are absolutely one of the best teams around, and not just defensively," Odom said. "They're a darn good offensive team. Their passes are smart, their spacing is good, they don't take bad shots. They play to their strengths and away from their weaknesses, which are hard to find."
No. 2 Massachusetts (29-4) vs. No. 4 Oklahoma State (26-9)
What: NCAA East Regional final.
Where: Meadowlands Arena, East Rutherford, N.J.
When: Today, 2:40 p.m.
TV: Channels 13, 9
How they got here: Oklahoma State upset top seed Wake Forest, 71-66, and Massachusetts routed Tulsa, 76-51, in the regional semifinals.
Outlook: This is the first meeting between the two schools. It marks the first regional championship game in UMass history, and Oklahoma State is making its first appearance in a regional ** final since 1965. It's a matchup between deeper, more athletic UMass and an Oklahoma State team built on half-court discipline. The Minutemen, led by 6-foot-11 sophomore C Marcus Camby (14.1 ppg, 3.4 bpg) and senior F Lou Roe (16.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg), have walked through the tournament, winning by an average of 21 points. Things won't be that easy today. For one, UMass G Edgar Padilla is not expected to play after spraining his foot Friday night. Secondly, the Cowboys present a tough defense and the potent, inside-outside combination of 7-foot, 290-pound senior C Bryant Reeves (21.4 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and senior G Randy Rutherford (19.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg). To win, the Cowboys need forwards Scott Pierce and Terry Collins to bounce back from miserable offensive showings Friday, and Oklahoma State must keep the game in the 60s.