The men's and women's Sooner basketball teams are in the middle of their off-season workouts. Both OU Men's Basketball Coach Kelvin Sampson and OU Women's Coach Sherri Coale say that this is the most important time of the year for both teams.
Sampson has hired Darby Rich to be the strength and conditioning coach for his program, and Rich has already earned the players respect and trust. One of the biggest keys for Rich is to get prized forward Kevin Bookout in the best shape possible. Bookout is going through every workout and shows indications that he will be better than he was before shoulder surgery.
"I think Kevin will be a much better athlete. He still needs to regain some of the strength in the shoulder, but that will come," said Rich. "In things like the hand clean, he is doing the same stuff that the other post players are doing. We tested them on the bench press two weeks ago, and as kind of a starting point he did 265 with no pain. Obviously, he can do more than that, but we are just at a stage where we don't need to find what he can't do right now. He is playing pick-up with the guys, he is going through all the individual workouts and there is nothing within the body of his weight workout that is any different than any of the other guys. It is just a matter of getting his strength levels back.
"He weighed 258 yesterday morning and he is really running well. Kevin hasn't missed a time in any of our conditioning sprints. He says he is jumping a lot better. I have never been around Kevin when he felt he wasn't jumping well, but he has been moving well from my perspective. I have never seen him at 275 to 280 in the past."
While Bookout is a key to the Sooner return to the NCAA Tournament, he is not the only player that needs a big off-season.
"There is not a guy that I haven't been pleased with," said Rich. "Obviously, when I took the job I talked to Coach Sampson and a number of other people about the guys to try to get a read on them. I put stars next to some of there names and an asterisk to others, but I haven't been disappointed in a single guys workouts."
"Drew (Lavender) is starting to become the leader that coach wants him to be," Rich continued. "Johnnie Gilbert has just been unbelievable. I know the fans here see Johnnie as a quiet type who smiles a lot and is kind of goofy, and everybody loves him. However, he has really been vocal, even though he has had to sit out recently with a minor neck injury. When they play pick-up he is in the gym sitting at half-court almost coaching the team itself.
"Brandon Foust has come a long way since the time I arrived here until now. Lawrence McKenzie has looked good. Taj Gray and Terrell Everett are super, exciting additions to what we had we I got here. You don't want to set the bar to high for Taj, but he has a chance to be a really special player. You talk about who guys remind you of and the consensus among the coaching staff is that he plays like James Worthy did when he was at North Carolina. He can really run, he does a lot of things well, and he competes every second he is out on the floor. You would think he wasn't going to get to play tomorrow if he didn't play well today."
Coach Sampson has never been a fan of rat ball, but during this time of the year this is all that we have to go by, so we asked Rich who is playing well?
"I am in and out with so many different things, so I see different guys on different days," said Rich. "'Book' has had his good days and Taj has had his good days. Lawrence McKenzie, in the last few days, has really played well. I don't think anybody has had days where they were just bad, but I think every time you think that this guy may be one of our better guys another guy steps up. Hopefully, we will have a go-to-guy or two, but it looks like we are going to have several guys who can make a basket and go get a rebound.
As always, the off season health of the Sooner women is a key to their success. The OU ladies have gone through so many ACL surgeries that it is tough to watch. However, maybe those surgeries are going to be a thing of the past.
"It has been a joy to watch this team this off-season because we are still kind of a young team, but we are an experienced team to which is kind of a weird combination," said OU Assistant Coach Jan Ross. "We are kind of middle-heavy because we have only two seniors again this year. And then we have two freshman with everybody else in between. We are still young, but I feel like what we have experienced the last couple of years will give us a chance to get these young kids experience."
"Dionnah Jackson is our leader and there is no doubt about that," Ross continued. "She is up for every pre-season award in the country and is probably even up for more awards than Stacey Dales was her senior year. She is going to be our leader and she has that edge to her right now. She is determined to get this team on her back and get this team where it needs to go. From a coaching standpoint, it is refreshing because we almost don't have to do anything because 'D' is in charge down there. She is such a great kid and has really taken over the leadership of this team."
A key for the Sooners is the health of sophomore Chelsi Welch, who missed last season with an ACL injury.
"If you didn't know Chelsi had knee surgery then you would watch her play and you would never know," said Ross. "She is a tough kid and has attacked her rehab very well. If she didn't have a brace on you would never know she was injured. She does have to wear that brace this year, but every other knee brace is gone. We don't even remember them any more. Considering how many players we had wearing them at one time that it is amazing that Chelsi is the only one wearing a brace now. Everybody is doing great. Chelsi has really attack her rehab and it is good to see her out there shooting the ball again in individual workouts. You knew how well she shot ball, but when she is out there now you say to yourself ‘man, she can really shoot the ball.' You just keep telling yourself that even thought you knew it."
"Erin Higgins is shooting the ball as good as ever and Leah Rush is going to be a dominant player," Ross continued. "I think she is going to be the player that people will be really surprised how much she steps up this year. Leah is going to be one of the leaders on our team. She is has had a great off-season and individual workouts. She has been playing a little more outside and hopefully will have the freedom to move her out there this year. She will be able to play inside and outside and she is just having a great preseason."
The Sooners only brought in two freshmen, but both will be counted upon to contribute this season.
"Stephanie McGee is one of the most skilled freshman that we have ever had," said Ross. "If the ball is in her hands and she is going to shoot it then it is going in. What she is going to have to work on is getting that shot off quicker. She is going to have tougher defenders than she ever has and it is going to be a little more physical. She is going to have to be in better shape than she has ever been in, but she has done that coming in and accepting all those challenges. Stephanie has looked great in workouts.
"Kelly Lamb is probably one of the quickest learners that we have ever had for a post girl," Ross continued. "She is a little behind Beky (Preston) and Casey (Walker) right now, but she is a freshman and that is to be expected. However, one thing about her is that she is learning at such a fast rate, actually at a faster rate than any girl that we ever had. She is just a really smart girl who has hit the weight room. Every girl that comes in has to get stronger, but in the post it is even more magnified. Kelly has hit the weight room and has already gotten stronger. She will help us this year no doubt, both of those kids will."
Without questionm things look bright on the Sooner hardwood this season.
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