NORMAN, Okla. — Life without Hollis Price, Quannas White and Ebi Ere is officially underway for Oklahoma Head Basketball Coach Kelvin Sampson. Sampson would rather use the term 'reloading' than 'rebuilding' for his task in 2003-04 of replacing the three players who so were key in OU's tourney runs to Final Four and Elite Eight over the past two years. Sampson, whose Sooners will begin the season ranked 15th in the Coaches Poll, talked about his expectations for the upcoming season at Oklahoma's Men's Basketball Media day on Wednesday. Below is a transcript of Sampson's interview with the local media.
On the team after two weeks of practice
"It's hard to assess this team. I don't know if we've ever had a team that the injury situation has been as bizarre. Starting with our trip to Costa Rica, and I think yesterday was our 18th or 19th practice, and not one day have we had all of our guys healthy. Kevin's (Bookout) out with a sprained shoulder. Jabahri's (Brown) out with a bad ankle sprain. Jason Detrick has — we call it the 'Gilbert' injury now. The Johnnie Gilbert abdominal injury that he had. De'Angelo (Alexander) hurt his shoulder the first day. Everybody has kind of been in and out. It's tough to gauge your team. The only thing that I can speak about is the new guys are all getting better. If there's a silver lining, it's that I'm probably spending more time with our freshmen and our new guys than I normally would. Our last three practices have been the best practices we've had all year, regardless of whose been at practice. That's because Jaison Williams, Andrew Lavender, Lawrence McKenzie, Brandon Foust — those four have really played well.
"Johnnie Gilbert has really been our best post player to date because he hasn't missed any practice time. I don't know how you can be good if you don't practice. Kids that don't practice usually become really inconsistent, because they're not there everyday. And that's why Johnnie Gilbert is our best post player, because you know what to expect from him. I think the thing we try to get our kids to understand is how important being dependable is. The greatest ability that a veteran player can have is dependability, and Johnnie's our best veteran right now because he's at practice everyday and he does all the little things right. Of all of our veteran guys, he has a better understanding of what Sooner basketball is, and he surrenders to it. He's really done a great job of helping our young guys because he's been in there everyday.
"This team will go as far as our veterans take them. We have some really good young players, but you guys know that young players in this conference get better. I don't know if you're going to win championships with freshmen in the Big 12. The guys that have to play for this team are Jason (Detrick) and Jabahri (Brown). Kevin Bookout and De'Angelo are veterans, and they're just sophomores. That tells you a little bit about the state of our program. I think we're going to be good. I don't know that we're at the level we've been the last two years, but you have to think about the level we've been at the last two years. Very few teams have done what we've done the last two years, and that's a short list of teams that have accomplished that. But that's the standard that we like to set for ourselves. We'd like to get back to that level. It will be a work in progress with this team, but I like the direction that we're going. I'm not sure I enjoy coaching this team more than I enjoyed coaching the last few years. Last year's team was a fun team to coach because we knew every time we played we were either going to win or could win. We were going to be favored almost every game we played. This year's team is kind of like having a big old piece of black canvass and you're trying to create something with it. For a coach that's a lot of fun, to see what this team evolves into."
On the process of having a true freshman (Andrew Lavender) start at point guard
"I've wanted a freshmen point guard for a while. You forget that sometimes in recruiting it's a reaction to something. For instance, I don't think we would have ever recruited Quannas White had J. R. Raymond not had some problems. Coaches usually recruit kids that fit them. We started planning on getting the best freshmen point guard that we could. We started recruiting juniors when Quannas was a junior. That's when we started looking at a list. We had a list of about four or five guys we were tracking for about two years."
On when he expects the injured players to be back
"Jason's injury is really deceptive. You know when a sprained ankle is going to get back. A sprained ankle comes down to the person. Some kids can handle more pain than others, but it's a sprained ankle. Jason's injury is much, much more severe. It's just harder to gauge that. I think we learned from Johnnie last year that it's a funny, funny injury. It's an unusual injury. I did Johnnie a disservice last year playing him in New York. Then he came back and we sat him out a month and he had only gotten slightly better. Watching him this year tells me how much he was hurt last year. The difference between Johnnie this year and last year is night and day. He's a second, third and fourth jump guy. Last year he could jump and get it once, but he'd never go back the second time because he didn't have any explosion. This year when we were in Costa Rica, Bookout was our best stat person. I think he led us in scoring and rebounding, but I'm not sure that the player that played the best in Costa Rica wasn't Johnnie Gilbert."
On if he knows going into the season who will be the leading scorers
"Last year I thought that Ebi Ere would be our leading scorer. I think all of our players would have agreed with that too. Ebi was our leading scorer until about the middle of January, and then Ebi went South on us and Hollis got better. We thought that those two would be our leading scorers. Our three leading scorers this year will be Jason Detrick, De'Angelo and Kevin Bookout, in some order. Any of those three could be our leading scorer, depending on how they shoot the ball. We have x-factors on this team. I think Jabahri is a big x-factor for us, because when he plays at a high level then we're a lot better. Even though Lavender is the point guard, the thing that he's proved in practice and in our scrimmage situations we've had is that he can score. We've got a lot of guys who can make baskets too. Jaison Williams is probably our most consistent three-point shooter, although we have some guys that are streaky. It depends on how the freshmen come along. Lawrence McKenzie is starting to feel a more comfortable. Brandon Foust is a kid that I had talked about redshirting, but the way he's played the last week I'm not sure if we can redshirt him. The season changes and you make adjustments."
On if who will play what role yet this season
"I have a good feeling about who does what. I've watched them in practice enough to know we're going to be good, and I qualify good. Right now we're a work in progress, because we're so young. I like the term you don't know what you don't know. I don't know how we're going to be on the road. We've got so many new guys and question marks. Jason hasn't played for two years and the role we'd like for him to play this year — I haven't seen him in that role. I want to see how he handles things when things don't go good. Last year and the other year, even though we won a lot of game, I knew how we were going to react in adversity because I knew Quannas and Hollis so well. They were going to handle everything. Those guys deserve a lot of credit for our past success. When things went South on the road we had games where I wouldn't even say anything at halftime — Quannas and Hollis would do it. When you have senior veterans that care deeply and invest as much as they've had, they tend to take things personal. I don't know if we're like that with this team. I think we're talented, and I think we're quick, athletic and the deepest we've been, but it's a young talent that will get better as the season progresses."
On if he knows who will be in his rotation
"There's 10 that's in that rotation. But you know how our program works, I'm not going to play 10 guys. I know if everybody is healthy Jason Detrick and De'Angelo will start for us on the wing. And behind Jason Detrick and De'Angelo we have three guys - Lawrence McKenzie, Jaison Williams and Jimmy Tobias - who need to start separating themselves. I've seen some separation the last couple days in practice because kids are starting to compete and play hard. Up front we have three guys - Jabahri, Johnnie Gilbert and Kevin - that can play at a high level. The other two are Brandon Foust and Larry (Turner), and we're looking for one of those two guys to step up and be a little bit more consistent."
On who will backup Andrew Lavender at point guard
"At this point I'd probably say Jaison Williams. He can go in and spell Lavender, I think."
On where he was the first time he saw Andrew Lavender play
"It was when I was watching De'Angelo, Kevin and Shelden (Williams) with Athletes First team in Orlando, Fla."
On if he was already on his watch list at that point
"No, he was 10th grader. He just finished his ninth grade year. I think it was the summer before De'Angelo's junior year."
On how soon it took him to put Lavender on his recruiting list
"Pretty quick. Once I figured out he wasn't a manager (laughs)."
On if he knew right then if Lavender could play for him
"No. I think that's how you find good players. Sometimes you just see a young kid and you start tracking him and seeing him. Lawrence McKenzie was the same way. When we were recruiting Johnnie Gilbert that's the first time we saw Lawrence. Sometimes it's just by happenstance or coincidence, but you could tell that both those kids were going to be really good players at some point. I think our program's to a point now where if a freshmen is good enough he's good enough.
On Bookout and Alexander's development
"I think the thing that impressed me about De'Angelo and Kevin is how much better they got as the season progressed. I watched these freshmen, like Jimmy Tobias, and I'm not sure if he knows whether he's on foot or horseback half the time. But De'Angelo was in the same place last year. He was the same way. Kevin was kind of on a tidal wave. He just kind of rode the wave. Didn't do anything to get off it, but really didn't create the wave early. He was just part of it. And then as we got into January and February, De'Angelo and Kevin were part of the wave. They were holding their own. Our two leading scorers in the NCAA tournament, they were our two leading scorers. They're a known commodity, and that experience will help them. But that also shows you where our future is headed to — that two of our best players are sophomores. I've always been a big believer in our seniors. If this team is going to have a great year it's going to be because of our two seniors — Jason Detrick and Jabahri Brown. Period."
On how De'Angelo Alexander's shoulder is healing
"It's sprained. It's nothing that requires surgery. Rest will help him. We try to keep him out as much as we can. The thing about guys like Jason Detrick and De'Angelo is they don't like to miss practice. They want to be in there. I had to tell Jason yesterday (Tuesday) to not come taped up to practice. He's not supposed to practice, yet he tapes up for practice and jumps in there for drills because he's chomping at the bit to get in there. I think we're going to have everybody full force tomorrow (Thursday) except for Kevin. I doubt Kevin will play in either one of the exhibition games."
On having a true freshmen start at the point
"I think his greatest allies will be Jabahri, Jason, Kevin, De'Angelo and Johnnie — the veterans. They do a good job of keeping him in line. The thing I like about this team is they have a good chemistry about them. They care for each other. When everybody is going through the war together it tends to draw them together. Sometimes their war is their coach. The one thing they have in common is they wish coach would swallow that whistle and miss practice. They're like buddies, and they know that Drew is important to this team, but they also know that he will be as good as they are. Drew's a good passer, but he's light year's away from where he needs to be defensively. His intensity level comes and goes, but that's why the veterans are so important. One day he'll be a veteran for us, but it's not now. He's never played a game for us, but he's a key, key part of his team."
On Lavender's basketball IQ
"Off the charts. He's got an extremely high basketball IQ."
On if he's ever invested so much trust in a freshmen before this year
"Yes. Bennie Seltzer (at Washington State). We lost 22 games his freshmen year (laughs). I gave Bennie keys to Volkswagon and he wrecked it. This is not a Volkswagon. I'm not saying it's a Bentley, but it's not a Volkswagon."
On Jabahri Brown
"Everybody looks at his stature. He's not a very dynamic person physically. I've met Jabahri's father. He's 6-6, weighs about 170. You just can't fight genetics sometime. Some kids aren't going to gain weight and be physically imposing, but that doesn't mean they can't get a lot stronger. He's a lot stronger."
On how much OU's style of play will change this season
"I think it will change offensively, but we're not going to change who we are. We're a team that's probably geared more toward scoring in transition than we are in halfcourt. I still think our best offensive player, in terms of getting a basket, might be Kevin Bookout, and Kevin's not going to be leading a lot of breaks. I don't think you can have a real solid team unless you have a low post presence. Watching Kevin play in Costa Rica and the 11 or 12 practice before he got hurt, he's a lot better than he was. Kevin's a good low post player. He can really score. I think this team's geared more toward getting the ball to him more. And by getting the ball to Kevin more creates more opportunities for our perimeter. Jason Detrick is a better slasher than Hollis or Ebi. He can create plays better. Now, we don't have anybody that can score the ball like Hollis, but when Jason Detrick catches the ball he can get into the lane and get by you and create a shot for somebody else. We'll be a different team. At some point we may be a better offensive team because we're going to get easier baskets. Lavender is a good creator. He gets shots, and his speed and quickness is a factor. This is absolutely the quickest team that we've had."
"I don't want to make a big deal about style of play. I remember in my first press conference nine years ago I was asked about my style of play and I said then, 'I want to win.' If we score 60 and win or score 80 and win, that's fine. I've always thought that shot selection, taking care of the ball and playing smart was important. I also recognize that if you've got a passing quarterback it's a good idea to not let him run a lot. If you've got a running quarterback, you probably don't want him to pass a lot. We're pretty good at adjusting to our players' strengths."
On the team's potential on defense
"I'm excited about where this team can be defensively. I made a deal with this bunch that I'll let you go on offense if you do what I tell you on defense. They're trying. I'm really pleased with this team's effort, especially the last two or three days. I've seen more improvement the last two or three days with this team than I saw the first two weeks. At some point you've got to get it. I'm anxious to see how they play in a game on Monday. These exhibition teams are a lot better than they used to be."
On if the freshmen group is better than he thought they would be
"Ask me in March. It's hard to say right now. Sometimes I look into Lawrence McKenzie's eyes and I can see all the way to Yugoslavia. I'm not even sure if I'm getting any response in Jimmy Tobias. They're freshmen. Their biggest adjustment has been to the pace of our practices. They jump up and shoot a jumpshot and they don't know whether it's going to go in or not. They're just trying to come down without having to run another sprint. But they're getting a lot more comfortable."
On the non-conference schedule
"Nobody accused the ball coach at OU of being smart. We've got the youngest team we've ever had and the most inexperienced team we've had, and we've probably got our toughest non-conference schedule. I think it will be good for this team. We may take some lumps early, but I thought that the most important game last year's team played was Alabama. Losing to Alabama was really good for this team — it helped me coach them. Sometimes kids start thinking they're a little bit better than they actually are. Life has a way of adjusting you. You start thinking you're a little bit better and here comes someone to put you in your place. So, the Alabama game was good for us. This isn't football, where early losses are going to take you out of something. I don't even think Syracuse was ranked in the top 25 until January last year. I don't think they played a game away from home. Everybody has a different way to do their schedule. Playing Tulsa, Princeton, Michigan State, Connecticut and Purdue — those are all games you could lose if you don't play good. But you know what? It gets your attention. It's a lot easier to motivate your team and get ready for what's going to be a tough conference season. It's a negative in some ways because it's such a tough schedule, but I look at it as a challenge. It's a good opportunity for this team to prove how good they are early."
On the Big 12 race
"I think that you have three team's this year that are heads and shoulders above. Kansas has four starters back - (Wayne) Simien, (Keith) Langford, (Jeff) Graves and (Aaron) Miles. Missouri may have got addition by subtraction. They lose one guy but they may be better because of it. And then Texas has seven our of their top eight players back. I think those three teams, on paper, are the best in the league. But I don't think those three teams may be as good as the three at the top last year, which gives everybody else some hope. The team's under that have a chance to move up maybe more this year than in the past. But what's made the league stronger is those team's in the middle now have all gotten better. I think Kansas State's improved. Colorado will be better. Nebraska will be improved. Texas Tech will always be a tough game. Andre Emmett makes a huge difference there. I don't know if we're as dynamic a league as we were in the past. Think about it, the last two year's we've had two teams in the Final Four and other teams in the Elite Eight. We'll have a team in the Final Four this year. Somebody from the Big 12 could win the national championship this year. And that's our next step."
Sampson says Sooners still a work in progress
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