Sampson's coaching job this season second to none

Sooners Illustrated Editor Jay C. Upchurch says Oklahoma head coach Kelvin Sampson, not Texas A&M's Billy Gillispie, should be the 2004-05 Big 12 Coach of the Year.

Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie will get his share of votes when the ballots are tallied for Big 12 Conference Coach of the Year honors, and deservedly so. In his first season at College Station, the 44-year-old Gillispie helped transform the Aggies from pitiful 7-21 also-rans into a more-than-competitive 18-8 squad.

After finishing 0-16 in the conference a year ago, A&M went 8-8 this season. And what's more, the Aggies still have a shot at making the NCAA Tournament with a good run in Kansas City this week.

Kudos to Mr. Gillispie.

But with all due respect, a closer look at the conference race and the way things played out during the stretch run of the regular season reveals a clear favorite for the league's best coaching job in 2004-05...

Kelvin Sampson.

A year ago, Sampson's Oklahoma program struggled with injuries and inexperience that kept the Sooners out of the Big Dance for the first time in 10 years. Even though OU managed its seventh straight 20-win campaign, the unexpected departure of De'Angelo Alexander and the uncertain status of Kevin Bookout's injured shoulder made the Sooners a question mark among league contenders coming into this season.

Add to that the fact two new faces in the starting lineup would come from the juco ranks and it was easy to see why Oklahoma was picked to finish as low as fifth in the preseason Big 12 standings.

Still, according to Sampson, all of the pieces were in place for a run back to greater hoops prosperity. All was dependent on how fast the new fused with the familiar.

Through the first 10 games, the Sooners pretty much lived up to expectations, winning eight times while falling against highly-ranked opponents Washington and Duke.

As Taj Gray and Terrell Everett emerged as star transfers and returners like Bookout, Johnnie Gilbert, Drew Lavender and Lawrence McKenzie continued to develop into solid contributors, there was still something missing from Sampson's usual formula for success - consistency and intensity.

The Sooner guards, especially Lavender, experienced defensive troubles. And despite averaging almost 50 percent shooting from the field, OU's offense at times looked listless.

The Sooners gave the nation a glimpse of the possible with a stellar first-half performance against Duke, building a 39-29 advantage that grew to as many as a dozen before the wheels came off in an eventual 78-67 loss. But it was a mostly-forgettable 70-64 win over Tulsa where OU began to display a resolve that has become common among Sampson-coached teams. They won despite producing a subpar performance.

In some ways it was the turning point, as the Sooners went on to reel off 10 straight victories, including wins over ranked opponents UConn, Texas and Oklahoma State. Also in that stretch was a win over Texas A&M team in College Station, one of just two home losses for the Aggies all season.

A 67-57 thrashing of OSU capped the streak and created a false sense of security for many OU faithful. At 18-2, the Sooners climbed to No. 13 in the national polls.

"We were playing well, but we still had a lot of growing to do as a team," said Sampson. "I knew there was going to be a hiccup or two as we got into the meat of our Big 12 schedule. There are just too many quality teams in this league not to run into some adversity along the way."

The first "hiccup" came on the road at against an Iowa State team most had already written off as dead. At 0-5 in Big 12 play, the Cyclones seemed destined for the conference cellar, but they handed the Sooners their first loss in 42 days. In the process, ISU started its own seven-game winning streak.

Over the next two weeks, Sampson's club came face-to-face with its share of adversity, losing three straight games at one point, including a disappointing 88-81 setback against Texas Tech at home.

The improved guard play that had been a silver lining in the previous 10-game win streak had diminished, and Bookout, who was part of OU's solid inside 1-2 punch with Gray, all but disappeared.

The worse part of the slide was the fact the Sooners blew a 14-point lead in the second half at Missouri and then lost in overtime. It was a disheartening setback that had fans second-guessing Sampson and his players despite their earlier successes.

Suddenly, the conference title no longer seemed within grasp and OU found itself battling for its NCAA Tournament life.

"I never doubted this team for second because I expected us to hit a few rough spots in the road. I knew we had to find a positive and start building on it again," said Sampson.

The first step toward recovery came via an 83-60 win over Nebraska, as freshman David Godbold was inserted into the starting lineup. Three days later, the Sooners managed a miraculous victory over K-State on Lavender's driving bucket as time expired.

Little did anyone know it, but the win over the Wildcats was a harbinger of things to come.

Fast forward two weeks and four games to find the Sooners riding a six-game winning streak and sitting in a second-place tie with eighth-ranked Oklahoma State, just one game behind No. 7 Kansas. A 20-point romp over Texas Tech in Lubbock capped OU's regular season and left a crack in the door for a potential shot at the conference crown.

Losses by both OSU and KU in their final games would give the Sooners a share of the title and the No. 1 seed in the upcoming tourney in Kansas City. And in an incredible turn of events, that's exactly what happened.

"You just never know - that's why they play the games," said Sampson, after watching Missouri knock off Kansas to give OU a share of its first regular-season title since the 1988-89 season (when it was still the Big Eight).

"We are excited about winning the conference, mostly because our kids know they earned it. This is a good basketball team. To be the No. 1 seed this coming week will be nice and I want our kids to celebrate today and (Monday), because when Tuesday comes, we are right back to the business of finding ways to improve as a team.

"There is a lot of basketball left this season."

That's what Sampson does best - find ways to get the most out of his players and ultimately his teams.

It may not always look pretty and it will almost certainly never please all of the critics - but like it or not, Kelvin Sampson is one of the best coaches in the country. And judging by what his Sooners have done over the course of this season, especially the difficult Big 12 slate, he is without a doubt the Big 12 Coach of the Year.

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