Sampson on the State of the Sooners

What is the state of Sooner basketball? This week, Contributor Tony Sellars went to the source to find out, talking with coach Kelvin Sampson, in a far-reaching interview that covered the off-season defections, new arrivals, summer plans and the upcoming schedule. (AP Photo/Laura Rauch)

Tony Sellars: Despite all the events and uncertainty of the past few months, your program seems to be doing quite well. How have you managed to keep moving forward with all the distractions?

Kelvin Sampson: I'm one of those people, Tony, that just deals with things and move on. Things are never as good as they think they are but they're certainly never as bad as you think they are. When I look at next season and the season after that and the season after that, I don't think I've ever felt better about the future of our program – and our present state.

I'm going into my 12th season, last night I talked to about 600 people in Dallas (at the OU Caravan) and they asked me about the team and I said 'I'm gonna tell you the same thing that I've said going on twelve years now. We're gonna be good.' I say that every year and every year we are. Some years, we're a little better than others, but we've built one of the best programs in college basketball.

One thing you learn is that if you stay somewhere over a period of time you're going to have ups and downs. It's never, ever, going to be always on an upbeat. But the way we handle our adversity is that we really, really believe in what we're doing. We believe in the kids that we have and as long as we put our faith in the name on the front of the jersey, things will always work out for us. They always have and they always will.

TS: What is interesting is that you have lost a number of people earlier than expected and yet, you seem to have replaced them with players who are potentially better than the ones you put on the floor last season.

KS: We've had kids leave in the past, but these last two years I've never seen anything like this. And they've all left for different reasons. You know, when a kid transfers, the general public assumes that (a) something may be wrong and (b) it was those kids decision to leave. Well, I can tell you that there's two more choices, (c) and (d), (c) sometimes there's nothing wrong and (d) sometimes it wasn't their decision. And I'm not going to get into that, that's not important. But I can just tell you this — our program is as solid as it ever has been and probably in better shape than the 11 years I've been here.

I like the kids we have coming back. You know, you think about our three best players last year — it was Taj Gray, Terrell Everett and Kevin Bookout. They're still here. Our two best young players last year were David Godbold and Longar Longar. They're still here. The kid that sat out and really helped our team in practice every day, Nate Carter, I think he's gonna be good. The four kids coming in, I like the two freshmen, Austin Johnson and Taylor Griffin and the two junior college guards, Michael Neal and Chris Walker.

And not only are they good players, Tony, I'll just give you an example about Chris. Most junior college kids transfer in 48 transferable credits, and usually take three years to graduate. Chris Walker is transferring in 70 with a 2.85 GPA. He's one of the few junior college kids that will have a chance to graduate in May of his senior year. And he's actually coming to summer school, he'll be here Saturday, and he'll take six credits this summer. Chris is a leader, tough kid, a winner.

Michael Neal, I fell in love with Michael Neal the first time I saw him. You know, schools like Charlotte and Utah, bunch of schools like that, were recruiting him much longer than we did, but this is a kid that grew up wanting to be a Sooner. So, I like the five new guys. They're all going to help us in their own way.

And of course, when you look down the road, we've got some (high school) juniors that have decided to become Sooners. We're excited about those guys. But your team will always be about your returning players. With our triangle, and I always talk about that you have to have a good foundation and that's the triangle, that's Taj Gray, Terrell Everett and Kevin Bookout.

TS: As you mentioned, you've already gotten a big jump on recruiting for 2006. Where do the three commitments that you already have put you in your game plan for the rest of next year's recruiting?

KS: That, more than anything else, tells you about the state of Sooner basketball. The people's perception of our program nationally is startling, almost. In that class, we'll probably sign at least five and we're close to that now. We could realistically be done with our recruiting being complete by the middle of July. We're going to take two more commitments and we're close on both of those.

TS: Summertime is the time to get better, so give us an idea of what your players are going to be involved in this summer.

KS: All of our guys have been here since the end of school, they haven't gone home. Longar, Taj, Terrell, David, Nate, Kellen, Michael Ott, those seven guys have stayed together throughout the month of May. Kevin Bookout has been involved in track and is getting ready to go to the nationals in Sacramento.

Starting Saturday, Michael Neal, Chris Walker, Austin Johnson and Taylor Griffin, those four guys will be with the other seven guys. And starting Monday morning, June 6, all of them will be working out twice a day with our strength coach. They'll lift in the mornings and they'll condition in the afternoon. And they will be together until July 3.

Then after that, Taj and Kevin are going to go to NIKE Camp and work as counselors there. Terrell will go to Atlanta and work as a counselor in the Adidas camp. Longar is going to be in the Pete Newell Big Man Camp in August.

Nate and Longar will be playing for (former KU and NBA player) Rex Walters. He's taking an Athletes In Action team to Serbia and Macedonia. They'll be playing seven games over there in August.

Kevin is going with the NIT All-Star team with Jack Powers. They're going to England and he'll play eight games there. Taj has been selected for the USA 21-And-Under World Championship team that Phil Martelli of St. Joseph's is coaching . He'll be going down to Dallas on July 16 to travel to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and won't be back in the States until August 21.

So our guys are working out every day. We've got 'em spread out, some all over the world. We've got four guys traveling abroad and the other guys will just be working toward graduation. We don't have anybody with eligibility issues. They're in summer school to get closer to graduation. Actually, all of them are taking their tougher classes this summer because it is so hard for those guys to take the course during the semesters when we're playing.

TS: And what about your travel plans for the summer?

KS: I was actually selected to coach that World Championship team in Argentina, but I decided that I was going to focus on other things this summer. I like coaching those teams and I'll coach them again. I enjoy that, I love trying new things, coaching those kids. Winning that gold medal in Nova Scotia last summer was a personal highlight, a thrill just being involved with USA Basketball.

But I won't be doing that this summer, I'll be running camps in June. Our camps are bigger and better than ever, our overnight camp, our day camp, our Father-Son camp and our team camp, all of those have great numbers in them.

You know, last summer, I was only on the road (recruiting) five days. That's it. That's where guys like Bob Hoffman and Ray McCallum come in. You've got veteran guys out on the road. I like to stay here, because we have so many kids here on campus and I like to be around the kids on the team.

TS: I know it's still early and it's still in formation, but give us an idea about how the schedule for this season is shaping up.

KS: Our schedule is always difficult. I mean, look at last year. We played Washington, Connecticut, Duke, Minnesota, and Purdue. This year, we go to Tulsa, we go to SMU, we have Alabama here on ESPN, we're going to play West Virginia in the All-College and we're working on another deal with Villanova, Syracuse or Georgetown. Those are the candidates. There may be an addition, there may be a deletion, there may be a change, but that's kind of where we are.

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