The OU men's basketball team plays in the Great Alaska Shootout starting Thanksgiving night (11:00 PM) against High Point. The Sooners are off to a 1-0 start, and Tuesday from Alaska OU Head Coach Kelvin Sampson talked to OUInsider.com.
JH: This is a tough tournament isn't it?
KS: "You have two teams ranked in the top 20 in Alabama and Washington. Then you have a Utah team that is expected to win their league. So, you basically have three top twenty teams. And then you have programs that are rebuilding like Oklahoma and Minnesota. That would be the big conference schools. However, it is those other schools that you better worry about in a tournament like this.
"High Point is picked to win their league and they have five starters back. They are a lot like Northridge. Furman has always been a giant slayer. These three games are going to be good for us. We are really, really excited about playing on Thursday. We practiced twice on Monday and twice yesterday. We had a long day traveling on Sunday and we have had good practices to get grounded and ready to go.
"We open with High Point and that is going to be another game that is going to make us better. On our side of the bracket we have Washington and Utah, but High Point is the most important game that we play here."
JH: You try to give the guys a chance to see the sights on trips like this, so are going dog sledding or what?
KS: "They don't have a lot of snow here, but it is very cold. Twenty-eight degrees was the high here yesterday. Alaska itself is like a wild animal refuge. On the way to practice the bus driver stopped and showed us two moose eating braches off of a tree in some guy's yard. We have seen some deer, elk and antelope. However, we have some guys that think horses and cattle are wild animals. We will have to explain the difference to them."
JH: Coach you are 1- 0 on the year. What were your thoughts on your season opener?
KS: "We are pleased with the win. Any time you can open with a win irregardless of who you play is a good win. You look back at the games nationally that were played before us and I think they got our kids attention. North Carolina loses to Santa Clara, Missouri loses to Davidson and Vermont takes Kansas right to the buzzer. Those kinds of games can help a lot of teams. They get your teams attention.
"We knew how good Northridge was, or at least our coaches did. However, sometimes getting players to understand how good a team, especially when it is not a household name, can be a challenge. That really got us into focus and good thing to. I thought all the negatives, challenge and adversity (82-72 win) that we went through in that game was good for us. We didn't play well the first half, but the second half I thought we played well. At some point, we overcame a 12-point deficit to win by 10. That is a 22-point turnaround. And for us this early in the season to have something like that happen for us is a positive.
"I think it helped our team grow, and obviously we saw what we have been talking about with the strength of this team with Taj (Gray) and Kevin (Bookout). As we go along you will see Johnnie Gilbert, Longar Longar and Larry Turner add more to the team. They are going to get game ready. I thought our guards had some moments. They have to get more consistent. Our defense has to improve. I saw a lot of things that we have to get better at, but I was always pleased with some of the things that we have to do to win."
JH: What a start for Taj Gary?
KS: "Taj is not going to average 29 points and 14 rebounds every night, but of course nobody is. That guy hasn't been born yet that can do that every night in this league. However, that gives credit to some of the things we have been saying about Taj. He is a warrior and he never takes a possession off. Obviously, when he goes against some of the bigger stronger teams in our league they are not going to allow him to do that.
"Taj is a scrapper. He is not going to beat you with a lot of talent, but he is talented enough that you really have to pay attention to him. He can score the ball around the basket, and I think the thing that impressed me were his 14 rebounds and the 11-for-13 free throws. Those are things that we work on, but you don't often get those kinds of results. Taj is a kid that never takes a day off, so you put Kevin and Taj in there at the same time now we have two guys that can make baskets. How you get to become a good offensive team is to have a lot of guys on the court that can score, and we have more players who can score this year."
JH: Last year we didn't get to see Kevin Bookout much, so you made up for lost time by playing him all 40 minutes. Talk about that decision.
KS: "If I had to do that over again maybe I would try to get Larry or Longar in there, but we got down 12 in the first half and we got a little dis-combobulated. When that happens those youngsters, especially freshmen, you have to be able to trust them. I wanted a good situation to put them in and in the second half the game was broken up by so many free throws that he was getting his rest there. We called timeout and they called timeout and he was getting enough rest.
"Give Kevin credit for being healthy enough, but also in condition. That is what losing 30 pounds did for him. He could have never done that his freshman or his sophomore year. This was such a possession to possession game that it was hard to get those other guys in. No doubt in the future they are going to be a huge part of what we do. I expect them to play a lot of minutes this weekend."
Sampson, Sooners ready for Great Alaska Shootout
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