Note: OU Insider's James Hale is in Atlanta with the Sooner basketball team. The following is his first report of the final four weekend.
The Oklahoma Sooners had time to soak in final four excitement Thursday before getting serious and realizing that they must counter their enthusiasm with resolve.
The team, still riding the wave of euphoria heightened by a growing swell of national attention, were brought down to earth today by some serious words from coach Sampson. Kelvin pointed out that last year, a similar Maryland team denied the critics and made the final four. The Terps were up by twenty over a favored Duke when the roof fell in and their dream was shattered.
Coach Sampson attributed the spinout to a lack of focus brought on by the distractions and media attention of their first final four. He cautioned that Oklahoma could be this year's Maryland. The final four excitement had to be laid aside and it was time to go to work. Kelvin's instructions to a suddenly silent squad were, "calm it down and play for keeps." He looked into the faces of guards Price and White and told them, "think of the excitement of your championship in high school. Now magnify that a million times. That's how much pressure we're about to face."
With that admonition, the Sooners took the court for their first practice session and responded as Sampson had hoped. Coaches summed up the workout as crisp and confident. About the worries over whether the dome would provide an adequate shooting environment, Hollis Price predicted that teams would shoot well and proclaimed the Georgia Domes' gargantuan setting as ‘perfect.'
Meanwhile, the national media continues to gravitate to the Sooner camp. With the expected ‘East Coast bias' affecting the mood, the general, but someaht fickle, consensus now looks to an Oklahoma Maryland rematch with the Terps prevailing.
Both teams had better watch out. Oklahoma for another mirror image, perhaps less talented, but certainly capable Indiana team, and Maryland for a Kansas squad that has been all but forgotten in the wake of the Oklahoma charge.
While some basketball media newcomers are just ‘discovering' Kelvin Sampson, those that have covered it full time have always liked the Sooner coach. However this week Kelvin has the national guys talking among themselves about the Sooner program. Win or lose, the program is now at the threshold of jumping into the national spotlight and earning the praise that this staff has worked so hard to build. A win Saturday, and certainly one Monday, will enhance the program beyond the wildest expectations of Sooner fans, and the national media will crown Kelvin the new king faster than ‘Dickie V' can say ‘freeze it'.
Bob Ryan, basketball writer of the Boston Globe is an example. Ryan now lists OU as the tourney favorite and proclaims Kelvin as the best coach in the foursome. He predicts an Oklahoma - Maryland final with the Sooners winning by a shot - or less. "If they lose, it won't be because they got out-coached," he says.
Hollis Price's stock is also on a bull run. It seems that every scribe in Atlanta is looking for the key to the soaring Sooners. And the quiet, unassuming Price gathers more fans with every ‘yes sir' and polite comment. Always giving praise to his coach and teammates, the junior guard is a throwback to the days of Converse high-tops. In a sports world based on trash talk and shallow intimidation, Price is a breath of fresh air being swallowed whole by a gasping press, like a winded runner after a demanding 10K jog. If player of the year was nominated now, it's a certainty that Price would a least be in the race for the awards.
As for the other Sooners, one by one they are coming to grips with the awesome task before them. Suddenly, as if hearing a sirens' song, they begin to unfold and walk resolute toward the door marked 'out only' that they know will open up a much different world than the one they have known up to this point. And one by one, they stand and walk through it, never to return.
This report written for OU Insider by James Hale with assistance from Alan Hitchcock.