Pieces All Falling Right as Sooners Hit Atlanta

As most of you know I have had a great feeling about the basketball team since the beginning of January. I have gone on record many times saying that I felt OU had a good enough team to win a national title and beat any team in the country. I have felt this way, because Kelvin Sampson, his staff and the team have felt that way.

I picked the Sooners to win the national title and that chance is still alive. As the Sooners head to the final four I sure haven't changed my mind, the Sooners are going to win the national title!

I am around the coaching staff and the team enough to get a real feel for how the team believes in their abilities. Sampson is always confident as a coach and has always been confident about his teams, but this year his demeanor has been different. He has still been confident, but in a more outwardly manner. Sampson hasn't tried to mask his confidence this year, in fact wearing it on his sleeve.

Sampson told me something on the way home following the win over Missouri that is very telling about this year's Sooners. Sampson said that Oklahoma has always had good teams while he has been the coach and that the OU program is one of the nations best. However, the difference in elevating this year's squad to the elite level is that the 2001-2002 Sooners have better players than the Sooners had before.

A new phrase in college basketball this year is firepower and OU is a basketball that is loaded with firepower. Six different Sooners can carry a team offensively and Jabahri Brown is a fantastic athlete that has made a major impact on the floor defensively. Brown's upside is so high that it is scary to think how good he can be by the time he is a senior.

I have never seen Coach Sampson happier than he was following the Sooners victory over Missouri. A lifelong dream had finally been realized when his basketball team qualified for the final four. Sampson has told the story many times about how he use to go to the final four by himself when he was a young coach, because he didn't make enough money to take his wife. Now he is taking his wife and his whole team to the final four, something he has dreamed about since he was 23 years old.

Sampson's emotions were spilling over the entire weekend. The first day the Sooners arrived in San Jose, California his father Ned Sampson fell ill and underwent emergency brain surgery that night. Right after the Sooners first practice Coach Sampson spent the night at the hospital awaiting results on his father's surgery. The next day he missed part of the team's major practice on the eve of the Sooners regional semi-final and then headed to the Sooners major press conference.

At the beginning of the press conference I already knew about Mr. Sampson's surgery and I could tell that Kelvin wasn't himself at the press conference. Coach Sampson is a cool customer and he was trying to stay level headed, but as soon as he was asked about his background, which would force him to talk about his father he broke down. Who wouldn't, however it was still surprising to see a coach so often composed to an elite level cry uncontrollably on a stage. For a solid two minutes or more Coach Sampson poured his emotions in front of a national audience. It wasn't what he wanted, but all the poise in the world wasn't going to help him in this case.

Coach Sampson's love and respect for his father is well known, especially to those of us who are close to the program. Sampson learned his basic principles in life from his dad, the same principles that his lives by today. He learned basketball from his father and despite advancing in many ways to the high school days of his dad, the basically fundamentals of defense and rebounding are the same for Coach Sampson and his father Ned.

Coach Sampson's public emotion caught many people off guard and that included this reporter. However, it was so sweet and pure that the entire nation came away with a much better feeling about Sampson and his basketball team.

Sampson has always been great with the media, one of the very best coaches in the country in fact, however Sampson vary rarely shows his public side and what the country found out was that he is a very deep, loving and caring.

The best news is that Coach Ned Sampson will be released and will be allowed to fly to Atlanta to watch his son coach in the Final Four.  The victory over the Missouri also pointed out how close the OU coaching staff is to the Sooner players. Sure the coaches work them hard, but when practice is over they spend a lot of quality family time together.

Coach Sampson is always joking with his players, especially Aaron McGee. The player he has worked the hardest is the player that he tries to get to open up the most off the court. Sampson and Price have a great father and son relationship and the same goes for Selvy and White. This team gets along and plays hard for one another and that is one of its strength's.

On the plane trip back the players were exhausted and jumping. I mean they were happy, buzzing around the plane as much as they could. The only time they stopped dancing, signing and talking was when they fell asleep from exhaustion.

I have no doubts that Michael Cano is going to be a great political or a great business man someday. He worked the plane like a pro and drew chants of 'Cano' several times.

Selvy showed off that big smile and let down his cool for once. He was giddy and ready to celebrate. Price was also showing off that magical smile and working the plane.  Price has become the Sooner star, whether he wants to be or not and everybody wanted to talk to him. Price was tired, but couldn't sleep and walked up and down the aisle. He says hi to everybody and offered that great smile.

With two games to go it just seems that Price has matured 10 years. He walks and talks with an air of confidence about him and when you watch him you get the feeling he can't lose. In White he homeboy running buddy back with him which gives him an air of confidence. Remember, the last time White and Price played together they won state and AAU championships. these guys know how to win and believe that they will win.

Good things are happening for the Sooners. Ned Sampson came through emergency brain surgery and has progressed enough it is believed that he will attend the final four.

Ray Lopes has already interviewed briefly for the Fresno State and Boise State job and will meet with the President of Fresno State tomorrow. The odds are that his will be the last NCAA tournament that Lopes is with the Sooners, but he deserves a head coaching job so badly that well all have to pull for him to get his own program.

Finally, Coach Sampson is first and foremost a ball coach. All the money, all the fame, the big house and nice cloths doesn't change the fact that he is a ball coach pure a simple. Ball coaches want to lead a team into a championship game and that is what they dream about. For Coach Sampson his dream has been to lead the Sooners into the final four and he will realize that dream on Saturday.

It couldn't have happened to a better guy!


Sooners Illustrated Top Stories