By Andrew Kahn
When you think of why Oklahoma is capable of winning it all, you probably think of Buddy Hield. He's the frontrunner for National Player of the Year and the country's second leading scorer. The Sooners' strength is their perimeter shooting, but their secret weapon is 6'9" forward Khadeem Lattin, a paint presence who has attempted just two threes in his two college seasons.
"Lattin's a big-time defensive game-changer for Oklahoma," VCU coach Will Wade said in his postgame press conference on Sunday, after his Rams were bounced by the Sooners 85-81. "If they can keep him on the court, they can win it all. I think he's a big X-factor for them."
Wade praised Lattin's defense, particularly his anticipation as a shot blocker. Lattin averages 2.2 blocks per game, which was best in the Big 12. KenPom calculates his block percentage—how many two-point attempts he swats while on the court—as the 28th best in the country. But like any good shot blocker, it's not just about the stats. Wade talked about the number of shots Lattin affects, and Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger can certainly appreciate that. "He's long and rangy in there, and any time a guy's going to the paint, they've at least got Khadeem on their mind a little bit," Kruger said after the VCU win. "Even if he doesn't block the shot, he may change it a bit." Lattin's wingspan is 7'2".
The sophomore from Houston is the Sooners' best offensive rebounder. His post-up game is still a work in progress, but with other starters in Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Jordan Woodard, and fellow big man Ryan Spangler draining shots, Lattin isn't asked to create for himself. He attacks the glass to create additional shot attempts and has the agility and athleticism to sprint to the rim and catch alley-oops.
Before the first media timeout against VCU, Lattin had an offensive rebound put-back, a block, and two dunks off the same play. Twice Lattin set a screen near the three-point line before running towards the hoop and converting an alley-oop from Spangler. In both instances, every Sooner was outside the three-point line, leaving nobody to guard the basket. Lattin's defender is extra cautious about the player the screen is being set for—especially if it's Hield—and often not quick enough to retreat once the ball is passed back in Lattin's direction.
Foul trouble is a concern, and that's what Wade meant as far as staying on the court. In Oklahoma's first round game against Cal State Bakersfield, Lattin picked up a foul in the first minute and his third with 14:26 left in the game. As a result, he only played 13 minutes. He was whistled for his third even earlier against VCU and finished with four, but stayed on the court for 28 minutes.
"We're talking to him all the time about not picking up maybe that silly foul, that reach-in foul," Kruger said. "When he keeps his hands up and he attacks up high, I think he avoids fouls pretty well. Sometimes when his hands get down low and he's going for steals—on Friday, I think he fouled someone 25 feet out—those type of fouls are the ones we're talking to him about trying to avoid. Shot blockers are going to get some fouls. But we don't want him to pick up ones that aren't necessary."
Lattin's grandfather is David Lattin, a starter on the famous Texas Western team that beat Kentucky for the 1966 national title. If Lattin wants to add to the family trophy case—or even get Oklahoma to his hometown for the Final Four—he has to stay on the court. Spangler is a great rebounder, particularly on the defensive end, and Akolda Manyang showed the ability to block shots in his 14 minutes against Bakersfield. But Lattin's length and athleticism are unique.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.
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