The timing, as well as the backdrop, could not provide a more ideal setting for a triumphant homecoming by Oklahoma forward Khadeem Lattin in Saturday’s Final Four matchup against Villanova.
The lowest-scoring member of the Sooners’ starting lineup, Lattin is a sophomore known more for blocking shots (2.1 per game) than adding points (5.7 per game).
But he is a Houston native, as well as the only Texan in the starting lineup for Oklahoma (29-7).
In the audience at NRG Stadium will be two family members and former players hoping to see Lattin cut down the nets after Monday’s national championship game and complete a full-circle journey that would expand the family’s place in college basketball lore.
The trek began 50 years ago when Khadeem’s grandfather, David Lattin, helped lead Texas Western (now UTEP) to the 1966 NCAA title. Those Miners remain the lone Texas team to claim a Division I title in men’s basketball.
They also made history by becoming the first team to start five African-American players while winning a national championship game and will be recognized by the NCAA for that milestone during Saturday’s proceedings.
David “Big Daddy” Lattin, 72, is a Houston resident who hopes to watch his grandson join him as an NCAA champion with victories Saturday (5:09 p.m., TBS) and in Monday’s title game.
Monica Lamb, Khadeem’s mother, is a former college player at Southern California and Houston who played on three championship teams with the WNBA’s Houston Comets (1998-2000).
Khadeem Lattin appreciates the high-profile support he will receive in Houston and relishes the opportunity to enhance a rich family legacy.
“It would mean the world to me to win a title here at home,” Lattin said. “It’s kind of poetic that it happened 50 years apart, exactly. I want to win it, so hopefully me and my grandfather can be in a select club.”
To make that happen, Lattin (6-foot-9, 208 pounds) will have to deal with another set of emotions against Villanova. His grandmother, Brenda Fair, died Wednesday night after a long battle with lung cancer. Lattin received the news at the team hotel from his father, Cliff Lattin, the son of Brenda and David.
Lattin’s plan, at this point, is to “win for Grandma.” If he can do that twice in Houston, he will join his grandfather as an NCAA champion and would help Oklahoma claim its first national title in men’s basketball. Teammates understand and appreciate the challenge Lattin faces.
“It’s exciting for him, and it’s tough at the same time,” forward Ryan Spangler said. “He’s ready to play. He’s been wanting to play here all year long, in front of his family and friends. We just tell him to play good and play hard and we’ve got his back.”
Lattin, who has a 7-foot-2 wingspan, is the Sooners’ primary rim protector and the lone first-year starter to accompany a four-player, veteran nucleus. Against Villanova, Spangler and guards Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard will be making their 105th consecutive start as a group.
Lattin, however, has become a vital cog in the Sooners’ defense, the element of OU’s game that Villanova coach Jay Wright described as “the strength of that team.”
That’s with an offense that features three guards who make better than 40 percent of their shots from 3-point range: Hield (46.5 pct.), Woodard (45.9 pct.) and Cousins (42.0 pct.).
“Lattin is a great player. He’s a great shot blocker, especially when he’s coming from the weak side,” Villanova forward Daniel Ochefu said. “His length is very beneficial to their team. And when he gets on the block, he has a good jump hook over his left shoulder.”
He’s also a player on a historic mission, one that Lattin planned to discuss with his grandfather over dinner Friday night.
“He’s told me a little. But we’re having dinner tonight and he’ll give me more details,” Lattin said during Friday’s news conference. “He’s told me, ‘You are on a mission. Don’t get distracted.’ He’s told me not to be passive, to be the attacker. If you’re going to give a foul, make it count.”
Lattin said he has watched replays of Texas Western’s historic triumph, a 72-65 victory over an all-white Kentucky team coached by Adolph Rupp. His favorite moment was a thunderous, first-half dunk by his grandfather, guarded at the time by future NBA coach/general manager Pat Riley.
Only in the past few days, he said, has he learned to embrace the gravity of what his grandfather and his teammates accomplished 50 years ago.
“It just looks and feels real to me now,” Lattin said. “It’s always felt like a story I was hearing. But being here brings out a different kind of respect for what he went through and what he did.”
Both Lattins embrace the message delivered by the Miners’ title and its role in race relations.
“They both go together,” David Lattin said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Being a national champion and what it did for everybody else, very important. Your legacy is what it’s all about. If you do something for yourself, when you die, it goes away. But if you do something for somebody else, your legacy will last forever.”
With a title run in Houston, Khadeem’s legacy as a starter on OU’s first national championship team would be secure. History, however, would identify Hield, who averages 25.4 points per game, as the star of the show.
If that happens, Khadeem Lattin said a greater credit for his basketball development should fall to his mother, who taught him the game, rather than his grandfather.
“My mom is my rock,” Lattin said. “My mom is my best friend. She’s my teacher. And she’s my ultimate guider. She’s everything I need. She teaches me. She helps me grow. She’s my biggest critic. And she cheerleads me. She’s the most solid person in my life.”
Asked about the possibility of seeing her son claim a national title in the family’s hometown, Monica Lamb said: “I’m absolutely losing my mind. This is the biggest thing to happen in my son’s life and I get to share it with him … right here in Houston.”
The biggest challenge, Khadeem said, will be checking his emotions at the end of an eventful week marked by his grandmother’s death.
“It’s been a roller coaster for me personally,” Lattin said. “But it hasn’t been hard to stay focused. My teammates won’t allow me to stay sad for too long. I’m glad to be here in the Final Four. Once we get on the floor, I’m going to give it my all. We all are.”
The Final Four
(At Houston; all games on TBS)
Villanova (33-5) vs.
Oklahoma (29-7), 5:09 p.m.
North Carolina (32-6) vs.
Syracuse (23-13), 7:49 p.m.