Sooners Look To Return To Big Dance
The Oklahoma Sooners look to return to the NCAA tournament after missing out last season and having to settle for an NIT birth.
Even with the team’s seventh straight 20-win season the “Big Dance” was out of reach for the Sooners and Coach Kelvin Sampson for the first time since Sampson took over back in 1994.
One of the main reasons for the Sooners missing last year’s tournament was due to the injury plagued season of 2003 Big 12 All-Freshman team member 6’8 forward Kevin Bookout who was forced to miss 18 games with a season ending shoulder injury that required surgery.
Bookout struggled throughout the first 13 games of the season before being sidelined for the remainder of the year.
Despite the injury Kevin averaged 7.6 points and grabbed 5.5 boards a game while leading the team with a .516 field goal percentage before being sidelined.
“Kevin’s a foundation guy,” said Sampson. “You build a program around him because of his strengths. He’s a pillar of strength inside, literally and figuratively. He’s lost weight which means he’s quicker”.
“He’ll play harder longer and play more minutes. He also understands the program. He’s a great inside post player. There are not many kids who have the potential to be a double-double guy, but Kevin does”.
“I think he’s one of the best post players in our league and we expect him to have a great year. We’re depending on Kevin a lot.”
Despite the devastating loss of the team’s dominating force, Sampson still managed to guide the Sooners to a No. 6 ranking in the AP poll during the season.
“Last season was a much different season than any I’ve experienced since coming to OU. First of all, we were dealing with a good number of freshmen playing significant role”.
For the number of freshmen we had, I think the conference was a little too strong and too veteran for us, especially when Kevin went down”.
“I think if Kevin would not have gotten hurt, we’d have had a really good year. I think we would have been an NCAA Tournament team and maybe been a No. 5 or 6 seed,” said Sampson.
“Last season was rewarding in a lot of ways. It was fun to watch the young kids develop, improve and learn how to play. I think the toughest thing with freshmen – unless they’re Carmelo Anthony type freshmen it’s hard to depend on them to win at a high level”.
“Very few teams last year had to depend on a freshman point guard, a freshman off guard, a freshman post but we had to depend on those guys”.
“If you look back, Hollis Price didn’t start until midway through his freshman year and Eduardo Najera was a spot starter”.
“We’ve always had older kids. Last year was the first year we’ve had to play that many freshmen. And I could see the effects in execution and in practice habits”.
“When you have one or two it’s okay. But when you have four, especially when you’re counting on them, that’s hard. It was a significant adjustment we had to make,” said Sampson.
With the return of Bookout for his junior year, coupled with a successful recruiting class (5 newcomers) and eight returning players from last years squad Sampson looks to extend his consecutive streak to 24 years with an appearance in the postseason.
Sampson is counting on his recruiting class to make an immediate impact in the front court along with the seasoned leadership of veteran 6’8 senior Jonnie Gilbert who replaced an injured Bookout for the final 17 games of the season scoring a career-high 5.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per contest.
“Johnnie understands,” says Sampson. “He’s very cerebral, very smart. He has a high basketball I.Q. He’s never going to wow you with his offensive ability, but he’s a winner. He does a lot of little things to help you win games. Johnnie possesses great intangibles, great leadership skills and is a great kid. He’s someone everybody in this program respects and I think he will have a great senior year.”
In addition to Gilbert coach Sampson inked first-team junior college All-American 6’8 Gray who averaged 18.1 points and 10.8 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game for Redland Community College (OK).
“He’s one of the best incoming post guys we’ve had. He’s almost 6-9, 240 and is relentless. Taj can score, but the strength of his game is his warrior mentality, his toughness. He can really run the floor and is an excellent rebounder and a very good shot blocker. I think Taj will be a difference maker for us up front.”
One player that might be a year away for Sampson is 6’11, 215-pound center Longar Longar (his real name) who was rated as the No. 2 juco player in the country. Longar averaged 15.4 ppg, 11.8 rebounds and 4.3 blocks per contest last year for Redland.
“Longar might not impact us right away because of the depth we have, but he will eventually. Longar has the chance to be a special, special player at the University of Oklahoma”.
“He’ll have a great college career. He has size, he has length. He’s 6-11, has long arms and can block shots and run the floor. And he’s a great kid. I mean a great kid. By the time his career is over here, Sooner fans will absolutely love him.”
Coach Sampson is highly optimistic of his selections to round out a much maligned offense from last year that lost sophomore De’Angelo Alexander to Charlotte, Jabahri Brown who was released from the team and Jason Detrick to graduation.
“I feel comfortable in saying that, collectively, this front line has the chance to be the best we’ve had at Oklahoma,” Sampson said. “I think the thing that excites me about that bunch is that it gives us a chance to have one of our best rebounding teams”.
Returning for the Sooners is Big 12 All-Freshman Team member Drew Lavender who should see an increase in his numbers from last year with the return of Bookout for a full year.
Lavender ended last season averaging 11.3 points, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals a game. He made a team-high 53 3-pointers on the season and shot .368 from beyond the arc.
“Drew is our floor leader,” said Sampson, “and he has to run the show. We’re giving him the keys to the car. He has to be dependable, responsible and solid”.
“He did everything that was asked of him last year. This year we want him to score less and pass more to make other people better. I think that’s more suited to Drew’s skills”.
Another newcomer and potential starter for Sampson is junior college transfer 6’4, 185-pound Terrell Everett who averaged 19.0 points, 5.7 boards, 5/1 assists, and 2.7 steals last season for SMSU-West Plains Junior College and was named second-team juco All-American.
“Terrell played point guard on his JUCO team, but is a natural wing which means he is a real good ball handler and passer. But his greatest strength is penetrating into the lane and attacking the rim and making people better. He’s also very fast and quick, and can get out on the break. Terrell will help make us a quicker, faster and better offensive team”.
Freshman 6’5 David Godbold starred for Douglass HS last season and averaged 24.0 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 2.1steals last season.
“David’s intriguing,” said Sampson. “He’s bouncy, athletic and a good shooter. He really needs to work on his ball handling, defense and intensity. That is why a redshirt year will be good for him”.
“The great thing about David is he is a great student, an excellent young man who comes from a great family. He will be a tremendous asset to our program and has the chance to become a really good player”.
The returning duo of sophomore 6’11 center Larry Turner and 6’2 guard Lawrence McKenzie should only add to the mix “I think Larry has a nice jump hook over his left shoulder with his right hand and he has developed that into his go-to move”.
“Larry can step out and make the 15-footer. He is a pretty good shooter and has really improved his free throw shooting. Larry has to maintain a good solid work ethic. If he does that, he has a chance to play basketball for a really long time”.
McKenzie averaged 9.7 points per game as a freshman last season for Sampson. “Lawrence has a chance to be a star. He’s smart with a great work ethic and he’s not afraid to take the big shot”.
“I remember a big win over Nebraska on the road last year where we were struggling offensively. We called a timeout to set up a play and Lawrence came out and hit a huge 3. From that day on, I’ve said Lawrence has a chance to be something special because he’s not afraid to take the huge shot. We expect him to make a huge step this year”.
6’6 Brandon Foust averaged only 4.1 points last year in limited action coming off the bench for the Sooners in the early going but picked his game up late in the year improving to 10.5 points and 5.2 boards in his last six games.
“He’s a really intriguing kid,” began Sampson. “He’s not really a true perimeter player, but he’s not a true post player. I think he’s a tough matchup”.
“He can jump up over a smaller player and he’s quick enough to go around bigger people. We’re going to play him a lot on the wing this year because of his explosiveness. Brandon has to keep working, keep improving and stay hungry. That will be the key for him.”
6’3 Jaison Williams looks to finish his senior season on a high note and improve on his 5.8 points, 2.8 boards1.5 assists and 1.2 steals per contest.
Jaison experienced a roller-coaster season last year as a junior finishing out the season on a high note. “Jaison is an excellent role player,” said Sampson.
“If Jaison will buy into his role and be our shooter off the bench, a guy who is real solid, a bulldog on defense with tremendous intensity who knocks down open trey, I think he’ll really help us. He’s a second-year junior college kid which means he’s due to have a great year.”
The final piece to this years puzzle is 6’7, 225-pound Nate Carter who is a transfer from UC Riverside, Calif but due to NCAA transfer rules will sit out the 2004-05 season.
Carter averaged 15.3 points and 6.8 boards last season for the 10-18 Highlanders. “The thing I like about Nate is that he can play multiple positions”.
“He can play up front or he can swing to the backcourt. He has a great body and is left-handed. He’s a sleeper, a kid who could turn out to be a really good player for us,” said Sampson.