Sampson, Sooners set for season opener

Taj Gray and Oklahoma will tip-off off the new season at 4 p.m. against Samford.

For Kelvin Sampson and the Oklahoma basketball team, the wait is over.

Sampson's sixth-ranked Sooners will officially tip-off the 2005-06 season at Saturday in Norman at 4 p.m. against Samford.

"After 27, 28 practices your kids hit that stall door and they're ready to get out and get running and get going," said Sampson, who 11-0 in home openers at the Lloyd Noble Center.

"We're looking forward to getting a rhythm going. You're lineup gets solidified and your rotation gets going when you start playing games. Practice is when you work on things, but games are what really teach you.

"We play this Saturday, then we play Wednesday at home, then we play the following Saturday at home and then we go to Tulsa the following Wednesday and to Villanova the following Saturday.

"After those five games I think that will give us an indication of what's our best line up and who fits best together."

Samford, an Ohio Valley Conference school from Binghampton, Ala., returns three starters from a team that finished 15-13 last season and 10-6 in conference play.

The Bulldogs come into Saturday's matchup with two games already under their belt after beating Sacramento State 83-66 and then suffering a 77-33 loss to Texas Wednesday in Austin.

"I actually watched the game," said Sampson on Samford's loss to Texas. "Samford had a ton of open 3's that if they made those shots it's obviously a lot closer. They're a team that has to shoot the 3-ball well."

The Bulldogs are led by an Oklahoma City native in senior J. Robert Merritt. Merritt, who played his high school ball at Bishop McGuiness with former Oklahoma State star Terrance Crawford and current Oral Roberts point guard Jonathan Bluitt, averaged 16.5 points per game last season. His brother, Joe Ross Merritt, is also a starter.

"J. Robert and Jon Ross have both had great careers there," Sampson said. "John Robert actually is the leading returning scorer in that conference. He presents matchup problems because he's a guard that plays at the four spot.

"The key to this game is going to be our perimeter defense by our post guys not getting beat on back cuts. They run a lot of Princeton stuff where they spread you real wide, back cut you, hand off and run the shot clock down to seven or eight seconds before they even look at the basket. If they make their 3's, they can be dangerous, but if they don't then you have to capitalize."

The Sooners had several players miss practice time during the preseason while nursing minor injuries, but Sampson says the only player who will not be available to play against Samford is freshman guard Austin Johnson.

"The only guy we think will be out for Saturday will be Austin Johnson," said Sampson. "His sprained ankle is one of the worst sprains I've seen. I think it ran all the way up to almost to his calf.

"It was discolored, and the swelling — it took forever to get it down. He's at practices hobbling around right now, but he's nowhere close to being able to play. We'll go with the same guys that played in our last exhibition game."

Sampson is expected to start seniors Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout and junior Nate Carter in the frontcourt, and senior Terrell Everett and junior point guard Chris Walker in the backcourt.

Gray, who was picked selected by the coaches as the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, was the Sooners' leading scorer (23.0) and rebounder (9.0) in OU's two exhibition games.

Game Notes
Oklahoma enters the 2005-06 season with the nation's longest streak for postseason appearances (24). In that span, Oklahoma has played in 19 NCAA Tournaments and five NITs...The Sooners will be looking to post their ninth-straight 20-win season under Kelvin Sampson, who is one of only seven current active coaches to accomplish the feat...OU has won 25 of their last 26 home openers and 18 of their last 20 season-openers. The lone two losses have come against UMass (1993) and Alabama (2002)...The Sooners have also won 65 of their last 70 games at the Lloyd Noble Center...The first 1,000 fans in attendance will receive an OU schedule magnet…Oklahoma will play in Norman again next Wednesday against Binghampton and the following Saturday against Belmont before their first road test at Tulsa on Nov. 30.

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