Sampson, Sooners eye Final Four

When Sooners Illustrated , an Oklahoma University publication similar to Cat Track Magazine, was putting together its preseason basketball issue back in October, and going through the process of interviewing coaches and players, two words continually found their way into the conversation: Final Four.

While Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson avoided making any hard-core promises about the Sooners¹ 2001-02 postseason fortunes, his players, especially the new blood on the team, were a lot more forthcoming in the prognostication department.

In a departure from his normally low-key persona, newcomer Ebi Ere boldly stated: ³Looking at the guys we have back and the new players Coach Sampson has brought in, I honestly believe this team is going to the Final Four.²

Jason Detrick followed with a similar prediction, as did Jason Detrick and Quannas White. The Final Four, and beyond, was no doubt the theme of the day. Even Hollis Price touched on the possibilities of a trip to Atlanta and the magic of a Final Four berth, before quickly back-tracking into the old ³we¹ve got to take care of business² mode.

Five months later, those two words are again on the tips of their tongues. But no one is ready to actually blurt them out, at least until the sometime Saturday. If everything goes as planned in San Jose.

The No. 2 seeded Sooners (29-4), making their second NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in four seasons, are two wins away from living up to their lofty expectations. First up, will be a showdown with a talented Arizona (24-9) team on Thursday.

SI talked to Sampson on Wednesday about his team, the season and the NCAA Tournament. Here¹s what the veteran coach had to say...

Sampson on his team¹s success and the postseason...
"When you are successful at the highest level I think it motivates you. I¹ve been proud of our two Big 12 championships the last two seasons, and I don¹t make light of that. Cutting those nets down are memories that we¹ll have forever. But that was the Big 12 scale and now we¹re on a national scale. Playing well at this point of the season gives great credibility to your program and the exposure you get with that. You keep raising your bar. Our bar has definitely been raised. That¹s why we¹re here. We¹re not here for mediocrity, we¹re here to be the best we can be.

"We have a lot of winners on this team. That¹s part of our identity. Whenever we lineup to play a basketball game, doesn¹t matter if it¹s against Kansas, Texas or whoever, our kids have a tremendous expectation level. They believe they are going to win every game they play."

Sampson on earning respect nationally...
"I think we¹ve carved our own niche. There is so much success in the Big 12 and I thought we got hidden a little bit this season because of the season Kansas had. When we beat Kansas on a neutral court ‹ anytime you beat the No. 1 team in the nation it gets people¹s attention. Then we follow that up by getting to the Sweet 16, so I believe people now understand that we have an outstanding basketball program.

"In reality, we¹ve been pretty good for a long time. Maybe we¹ve been a little unlucky. Gonzaga and Cincinnati can tell you a little bit about luck in the NCAA Tournament, about draws and seeds, and matchups. We¹ve had some bad luck. We¹ve been good enough to get to a few more Sweet 16s, but it just hasn¹t worked out. I try to keep it in perspective ‹ I know that sometimes it¹s not how good you are, it¹s how lucky you are."

Sampson on what the NCAA Tournament is all about...
"I think it¹s a magic time for college basketball fans and the college basketball community. This is our stage. Like the Super Bowl is the magical for the NFL or the World Series for baseball, this is our stage."

Sampson on what it means to his team...
"We have the courage and the good fortune to be on the national stage. We realize we are in the spotlight and only a few teams are there with us. So that is special. We realize what we have accomplished to this point ‹ it¹s been a special season ‹ and we appreciate it. Our message to our players is ŒDon¹t forget where we came from.¹ We want to make sure we bring Oklahoma basketball to San Jose. We feel we have more to do as a team, and this our chance to do that."

Sampson on keeping his players grounded at this stage...
"One thing my staff and I have done is make sure the players are relaxed and having fun. We don¹t put any undue pressure on ourselves. We realize we¹re still playing basketball and we¹re a pretty good team. We just try to make sure we¹re relaxed and confident, and that our kids stay within themselves. We want make our kids realize they have a great opportunity, but not let them get caught up in the moment."

Sampson on whether his team is peaking...
"The thing I like about this team is we don¹t have to play our best to win. I was asked the other day to evaluate how we played against Illinois-Chicago, and I said, ŒWe won.¹ That¹s the only thing that matters. Win and advance. I don¹t care how we do it. I¹ll take two 1-point wins this weekend in San Jose, no matter how we play.

"This is the best team we¹ve ever been to March with. We¹ve had other teams here that had great seasons just to make the NCAA Tournament field. Make sure people understand that teams like Michigan, North Carolina, Syracuse, Louisville, Virginia and Memphis didn¹t make the tournament this year. It¹s hard to make the tournament ‹ ask those guys. We¹ve done it every year, sometimes with teams that maybe overachieved a little just to get there. You can¹t be afraid to succeed or to fail. First, you¹ve got to get there, and whatever happens, happens.

"One thing is for certain, we¹re going to do everything in our power to beat Arizona on Thursday."

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