View Full Version : ESPN INSIDER Blue Ribbon OU Analysis...Long Read

11/10/2005, 12:02 PM
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Kelvin Sampson doesn't mind the pressure. He knows it's more than plausible that he'll one day look back at his coaching career and the 2005-06 Sooners will represent his greatest team. And this is a guy that has coached Oklahoma to a Final Four, an Elite Eight and a 31-win season.

"We really don't think about it, if you do, it just adds pressure," Sampson said. "But, you know, we have to be picked somewhere so I'd rather it be at the top than the bottom. I embrace it.

"I'm not sure if we're a Top 5 team, but we could be. We've been rated No. 1, 2 or 3 before and it's nice attention for the program. Exposure can never hurt. But I've tried to simplify things in my life."

But is this Sampson's best team?

"Well, you start with your league," he said. "I think it's impossible to gauge how your team's going to be nationally because there are so many factors. You look at last year with Vermont beating Syracuse and Bucknell beating Kansas, you never know.

"But this team has the potential to be really good. We'll be picked as one of the best teams in the league. But I don't know who the best team is. Last year we were picked fourth and won it. But I like this team's chances."

While last year's team shared the Big 12 regular-season championship with Kansas, it was a most disappointing finish with just one win apiece in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments. Oklahoma's season ended with a 67-58 loss to Utah in the second round of the Big Dance.

This season, though, behind seniors Taj Gray, Kevin Bookout and Terrell Everett, Oklahoma wants to erase any bad memories of the past. The Sooners want to look back on last season as a learning experience and a prelude to a magical run in 2005-06.

"This is probably the most talented team we've had since I've been here and that includes our 2003 Elite Eight team," Bookout said. "We've got so many weapons, so many scorers. That's going to make it tough for opponents to key on a certain guy or two. We're really looking forward to parlaying last year's Big 12 championship into something bigger.

"The loss to Utah taught us we need to work harder. We can't be complacent with anything. We were only 40 minutes away from the Sweet 16 and once you get there, anything can happen. We have every intention of making a much bigger dent this year. And we have the players to do it."

Sampson thinks the difference between this season and last will be maturity and senior leadership. Last year, Oklahoma had two seniors on the roster, but neither was a full-time starter.

"I think there's a maturity about this team and that'll be the difference," Sampson said. "With our three seniors, they're reaching the bells and stairs. They appreciate playing college basketball more and that goes a long way.

"We'll handle the big stage better this season because of that maturity. We lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament a few seasons back and then went to the Final Four the next year. This team has that resolve; they don't want to go down like that again."

And neither does Sampson. Now entering his 12th season in Norman, Sampson has a resume matched by few in Division I.

He has 435 career wins and has posted eight straight 20-win campaigns at Oklahoma. In his 11 seasons, the Sooners have earned 10 NCAA invitations and one NIT bid. A two-time national coach of the year, Sampson's last losing campaign came at Washington State in 1989-90.

While Terrell Everett finished second in the Big 12 in assists, he isn't a true point guard. Sure, he'll end up handling the bulk of those duties again this winter, but Everett actually signed with Oklahoma with the expectation of playing mostly the two and three. However, his days of a wingman ended quickly when Sampson needed stability at the point.
At the end of Everett's first season at Oklahoma, after two years of junior college, Sampson proclaimed the southpaw the team's MVP.

"He's our most consistent player," Sampson said. "A classic slasher, he needs to keep his dribble lower and use better judgment this season. He sometimes goes in too far on penetrations, too. But Terrell watches a lot of film and those aspects of his game should be improved.

"He's obviously a key for us because he's so versatile. He's good at everything. He's got a good I.Q., he sees the floor, he's a good passer, he gets to the rim, and he gets to the free throw line. He's not a great shooter, but he's a good shooter. He can play the one, the two or three and he's comfortable anywhere."

Everett's 57 steals led the team and ranked among the Big 12 leaders, but Sampson wouldn't mind seeing that number decreased this season.

"He's got to get better at staying in his stance, moving his feet and keeping people in front of him," Sampson said. "He gets a lot of steals, but sometimes steals are a gamble. I want him to be more solid and work on containment." Sampson did say, however, that he thought Everett -- not Gray -- was the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. Both the media and the coaches voted Gray the honor. Not only did Everett lead the Sooners in assists and steals last season, he was second in scoring and third in rebounding. He also paced the team in minutes played at nearly 35 per. Everett is expected to vie for All-Big 12 honors this winter and could also merit All-American merit if the Sooners rank among the nation's elite teams.

As a freshman, David Godbold started the last 10 games of last season, and over that span averaged 7.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists. He's a perfect fifth starter/role player who doesn't need to score a lot of points to be valuable. Actually, with the additions of Carter and Neal, there should be more than enough scoring from the backcourt.

"David is the jack of all trades, master of none," Sampson said. "He's long, big and strong and a really good defensive player. And he rebounds well for a guard. He had 14 points and nine boards against Kansas late in the season. And you can't be a good rebounding team without good rebounding guards.

"I thought David was a big key to our success last year and I don't think we would have won the Big 12 championship without him. When we made some changes in midseason and inserted him into the lineup, he gave us a spark. I think he has to improve his dribble game, be a more consistent shooter and play with confidence."

His defensive abilities should be enough to secure Godbold's starting spot this season. And scoring won't be a problem -- in the final three games of February, against Kansas, Baylor and Texas, he averaged 14.3 points.

Sampson has such an abundance of talent this season that's he honestly doesn't know who the starting five will be. It could be a different group each night, depending on the match-up. And if Nate Walker is ready to handle the point-guard duties from the first practice and Everett ends up playing the two and three, who knows? However, at the end of the game, when Sampson wants his best five players on the court, it's likely Carter will be among them.

Carter played two seasons at UC Riverside before deciding to transfer to Norman. There, he was voted Big West Freshman of the Year in 2002-03 after averaging 16.4 points and 5.4 rebounds and second-team All-Big West in 2003-04 behind 15.3 points and 6.8 boards.

He practiced with the Sooners last year and watched the games from the bench. While he impressed the coaching staff at the three, Carter can also play some power forward.

"I think Nate will struggle early because he hasn't played in two years," Sampson said. "It might take him a little time to adjust to the speed and tempo of the game. He's going to be critical to our success, though. When we had Aaron McGhee and Eduardo Najera, we had post guys who could pick and pop. That's especially effective at the end of shot clocks. When we set on-ball screens, it's a lot easier to defend a post guy who's rolling than one who's popping out for threes. Sometimes it's easier to get a post guy open for a three than a perimeter guy. The trick is, can he shoot it? We don't want Taj or Kevin or Longar shooting threes, but Nate can."

At 6-6 and 225 pounds of muscle, Carter is the team's strongest player, too. And that's saying something with Bookout on the team.

"He's a creative kid," Sampson said. "He really took the right approach last season. He learned so much watching the home games on the bench. We're not sure if it's going to be at the three or four, but this kid's going to be on the floor.

"Nate's strength is his strength. Pound for pound, he's the strongest player on the team. He's just a bull. He's left-handed, can score around the basket, can get to the rim, can pass, can shoot and is a team player who's mature. He really practiced the three a lot last year but I think a lot of nights you'll see him play some at the four. I like the fact we can be versatile, we can be small and we can be big."

The reigning Big 12 newcomer of the year, Taj Gray is also the lone first team All-Big 12 selection returning.

Gray was highly regarded out of junior college, having placed second in the 2004 NJCAA Player of the Year balloting. It was apparent from the first practice why, too, as Gray was almost immediately a starter. He ended up leading the Big 12 in field-goal percentage, including a .599 clip in conference play, and his 12 double-doubles were second. His 3.6 offensive rebounds per contest also paced the Big 12.

The scouting report on Gray says he runs and jumps extremely well for his size and while most of his points come in the paint -- including a team-high 39 dunks -- he does have a decent mid-range 12- to 15-footer in his arsenal.

"Taj's greatest strength is his heart," Sampson said. "He's relentless and tenacious and dependable. But he's one of those players who, the less he tries to do, the more he does. His challenge will be to concentrate on rebounding, post play and making the easy play instead of trying to make the great play. I think he has the chance to be the best player in this conference. I really do."

As for becoming more of a team leader as a senior, Sampson thinks that role will fall more to his classmates, Everett and Bookout.

"Taj is a quiet kid," Sampson said. "On the court, though, he's just so strong. He's really capable this year of 20 points and eight rebounds per game. We don't want him taking jump shots. He's going to make a living some day in the post and that's where he should be. He just tries to do too much. But the kid chases loose balls, will dive on the floor, we're talking big-time effort.

"We need to keep him out of foul trouble. That comes from being in the wrong position."

Gray fouled out of three games last season and committed 93 personals. He averaged just 27.7 minutes because of foul trouble.

"We need him for at least 30 minutes this season," Sampson said.

Gray concluded his initial NCAA campaign with 19 points and 15 rebounds against Utah in the second-round tournament loss. And while he shot just .646 from the line for the season, Gray was 25 for his last 31 (.806) over the last eight games.

It's not a stretch to call Gray a potential All-American.

The third member of Oklahoma's version of the Big Three, Kevin Bookout was the team's third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder last season. He is also considered one of the better post players in the Big 12.

A third-team All-Big 12 selection and first-team All-Academic Big 12 honoree, Bookout shot nearly 60 percent from the field but didn't officially lead the conference in field-goal percentage because he didn't quite make five buckets per game (4.94).

His career field-goal percentage of .578 is tied with Wayman Tisdale for the highest in program history.

Bookout's 2004-05 season is all the more impressive considering he dealt with a nerve injury in his right elbow for the majority of the campaign.

"Before Christmas last year, Kevin was really playing well on the perimeter and was shooting jump shots," Sampson said. "And then he [aggravated] his elbow and that hurt him. I think if he's completely healthy this year -- if his elbow recovers and he's able to step out -- you'll see a completely different Kevin. I want him to be consistent and confident with his jumper because he's got the green light.

"Kevin's our foundation; he's always solid. Kevin always makes the right play. A lot of that stuff doesn't show up on the stat sheet. We'd like Kevin to expand his game this year, more passing out of the post and becoming comfortable with double teams. This kid's allergic to passing out of the post."

Not many college basketball players can claim they were an All-American in another sport. Bookout, who has also competed for Oklahoma's track team, earned All-American honors in the shot put. His personal best of 61-4.75 is second in school history to Ed Wade's 63-8.25.

There's a chance Michael Neal could bump Godbold at the two, but either way, he's expected to play around 25 minutes a game.

11/10/2005, 12:03 PM

Last season at Lon Morris, he was considered among the best JUCO guards in the country. He moves well without the ball and will probably be the team's best three-point shooter.

"This kid can step right in and help us," Sampson said. "He moves better without the ball than with it, perpetual motion. And I mean that as a compliment. He's kind of a poor man's Richard Hamilton."

Neal was a first-team JUCO All-American last winter and his shooting range more or less extends to his dorm room.

"I think Michel is going to be an outstanding player here,'' Sampson said. "He has a great feel for the game. He's a better basketball player than he is an athlete. He's our best shooter; he's our best cutter and a very good screener. He's an impact guy right away."

Chris Walker is another JUCO expected to see playing time immediately. His presence should allow Everett to play more small forward this season.

Walker was the Northern California Junior College Player of the Year in 2004-05 and including his last two years of high school, his teams have won 115-of-130 games. "Chris is a point guard's point guard," Sampson said. "He's not a great player, but he gets the ball where it's needed. He'll drive for loose balls and really has those intangibles. The will to want to improve, the will to win games."

While he could start, with Everett moving to the two or three, Walker's likely to be the first or second player off the bench.

Walker is also left-handed, giving Oklahoma three southpaws.

"A winner, a warrior, a tough kid who loves to play defense, loves to pass and loves to push it,'' Sampson said. "If I had a knock against Chris in junior college it was turnovers. He's got to cut it down and I think playing in our system will help him. He'll be playing with better players who can catch his passes. He'll adjust quickly." Longar Longar. No, that's not a misprint. Longar converted 29-of-36 field-goal attempts last season. His minutes should increase this season because there really isn't another post player off the bench.

He showcased some of his limitless potential during his lone start on Dec. 30 against Florida A&M. He went 10-for-13 from the field and finished with 27 points, seven rebounds and three steals in 32 minutes.

"I think he's a big key to our team," Sampson said. "Because of the tendency for post players to get into foul trouble, we need Longar to make a huge leap this year. He needs to make big steps in becoming a productive player and in his confidence. There's no reason Longar shouldn't be an outstanding college basketball player. His improvement will be a key to how far this team will go."

Kellen Sampson, the coach's son, played in 12 games as a red-shirt freshman last season and was solid in those brief opportunities. He's a walk-on. "Kellen has the best work ethic on the team and it's really a blessing being able to coach him," Sampson said. "He's close to being able to play and I hope I have the courage to play him because he certainly deserves to."

Also a walk-on, Michael Ott played just 20 minutes over nine games.

"I don't know if a school has two better walk-on guards," Sampson said. "Michael and Kellen are good players, maybe our two best shooters. I have no problem playing them. On a 12-man team, which we have, these guys aren't walk-ons anymore."

Sampson doesn't plan on red-shirting either of his freshmen, so Taylor Griffin should see some playing time. And considering he's one of just four post players on the roster, if any of the other three are injured or in foul trouble, he could see significant time.

He was Oklahoma's Gatorade Player of the Year in 2005 and has chosen pre-med for his major. A physical presence, he actually posted a rare quadruple-double last season with 22 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 blocked shots. He led his school to back-to-back state titles as a junior and senior and lost just two of 55 games over that span.

"He's a coach's son and a tough kid," Sampson said. "He can play three or four, but we're thinking more four. The good rebounders are the ones who can come down with the ball in traffic and Taylor's an outstanding traffic rebounder. I think his future's very bright here."

The leading scorer in Amarillo city history, with 2,602 career points, Austin Johnson ranked as the nation's 53rd best player by Rivals.com.

"Austin might be our most athletic kid in the backcourt -- he can really get up," Sampson said. "He's stronger than he looks, too. I like him a lot."

Questions: Three-point shooting? Oklahoma drained 214 three-pointers last year. However, its top three shooters from beyond the arc either transferred or graduated. Just 44 of those three-pointers return.

Depth? The first three off the bench are arguably the best trio of reserves in the country. After that, it's two freshman and two walk-ons. That's it, as Sampson is carrying just 10 scholarship players. An injury or two could prove devastating. Never mind foul trouble in the frontcourt.

Turnovers? Gray and Everett need to limit their turnovers. Gray, Bookout, Godbold and Longar had more turnovers than assists last year.

Answers: The Big Three! There are about three or four teams in the country that could even attempt to argue against Gray, Bookout and Everett being the top three players on a given team. The fact they're seniors is all the better. If these three stay healthy, each is a candidate for All Big-12 honors.

Options! Sampson is going to live every coach's ultimate fantasy this season and that's being able to play big or small. One minute, Bookout, Gray and Longar could be on the court and the next four guards with Bookout or Gray in the post. Everett can play three positions.

Sampson! Give one of the top coaches in the nation his dream team and watch out. Long considered an elite recruiter, take nothing away from Sampson's coaching.


This is the year for Oklahoma. While Sampson has a strong foundation and the future is secure, this is probably the best Sooners team since Billy Tubbs rode Stacey King and Mookie Blalock to the national championship game in 1988.

Longtime nemesis Texas could be fielding its best team in program history, too. The games between these two should really be something.

The Sooners are loaded. If they stay healthy, it's hard to imagine this team not winning 30 games and no one outside of Texas really has any business beating them in the Big 12. Gray should vie for player of the year honors, not just in the Big 12 either, and Everett and Bookout are possible all-conference selections. If Neal is the real deal and Walker can handle the point for 15-20 minutes a night, it's going to be a long season for Oklahoma's opponents.

There's no reason Oklahoma can't contend with Texas for the Big 12 championship and make a real run at the Final Four

Harry Beanbag
11/10/2005, 01:27 PM
Wow, that's some mighty tall praise. I hope they're right.

11/10/2005, 01:39 PM
Sweet . . .

11/12/2005, 03:38 AM
See, this guy gets it. This guy just summed up all of my threads in one story. I would argue about the depth. Griffin and Johnson will be solid (pardon the pun with Griffin) guys off of the bench.

11/12/2005, 04:37 PM
Great article, 'spek for posting it. When he is mentioning depth, I think you need to take into account that we only have 10 scholarship players. Also, most of the players coming off the bench don’t have a lot of Division 1 experience.

On paper, this could be a very special year. We just need to go out on the court and show it. I’m very excited about the possibilities for both the men’s and women’s teams this year.