Sampson: "We can win in this tournament"

OU head coach Kelvin Sampson talks his Sooners' first round opponent and Oklahoma's tourney hopes. Oklahoma will play Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla. Tip-off for Thursday's first round matchup between the Sooners and Panthers is set for 11:25 a.m. (CST).

Below are excepts from OU head coach Kelvin Sampson's press conference with the media Sunday night shortly after watching the tournament selection show.

On making the NCAA Tournament

Sampson: First of all, and I say this every year, it's an honor to make the NCAA Tournament.

When you look up there and you see a school like Missouri State, who had an unbelievable year, didn't make it, Maryland didn't make it, Michigan didn't make it, Cincinatti didn't make it. There's so many great, great programs out there that don't make it.

So, first of all, I want to congratulate our players for making the NCAA Tournament. It's a clean slate. Everybody goes in 0-0 and you've got a chance to do some damage. I think we're going to be excited to play the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in Jacksonville, Fla. on Thursday.

On if Wisconsin-Milwaukee is an up-tempo team

Sampson: UW-Milwaukee, I remember last year when Bruce Pearl (former coach) was their coach they beat Alabama, they beat Boston College. They went right through that thing and I think they have most of their players back.

Obviously, it's a team that's had a lot of success the last couple of years and it will be a big challenge for us.

On if the fact that UW-Milwaukee went to the Sweet 16 last season will serve as extra motivation

Sampson: Well, I don't think we need motivation. I think that our team is looking forward to starting over.

You've got to have a great year to get to a tournament. Don't lose sight of that. And now that we're in, I think that every team out there has a chance to win.The 1/16 games, I don't know that those games can go either way, but after that there's a lot of games out there that either team can win.

If you look at the way we have played the entire year, we started off the conference year going 0-2 and then we came right back and went 11-2. Then we ended up the year 0-2, but none of that matters anymore.

It's a clean slate and I think our kids are going to be really excited to play.

On how the team has responded since returning from Dallas

Sampson: We came back first thing Saturday morning, but it's like how we reacted to the 0-2 start (in Big 12 play) at the start of the year. I don't have any doubt that these kids will be fired up and ready to go on Thursday.

On if he was surprised that his team was seeded as a 6 seed

Sampson: No, before the Big 12 Tournament started I thought we were going to be a 5 or 6 seed. And then when it was over, I thought we'd be a 5 or 6 seed. One game doesn't determine any seed in the NCAA Tournament.

This is the 11th year we've been in the this tournament, so we've played in the tournament a few times. The reason I say that is because you start getting a feel for where you will be as a seed.

But regardless of your seed, you have a chance to win. And that's what the tournament's all about. You congratulate every team that made it, and teams like Michigan, Maryland, Cincinnatti, Missouri State, Florida State, a lot of teams had a chance to get in.

It just shows you you've got to have good year to get to the tournament. Our kids had a good year, not a great year, but we had a good year. We're in the tournament, it's a clean slate now. We'll look forward to Thursday.

I'm glad we're playing on Thursday. I kinda thought we'd be a 6 seed, but I was hoping we'd be in a regional where we could play on Thursday.

On if he's looking forward to the next three days of practice to get the team going in the right direction

Sampson: Yeah, that will be a key. There's no sense sugarcoating it. It's not like we ended the year on a high.

Last year, we ended the year with six straight wins and then we went to the Big 12 Tournament. Who did we...I don't even remember who we played in the Big 12 Tournament last year. Then we beat Niagara and then didn't play very good against Utah. This time of the year is for the players. They've got to play.

We're playing against a team that will have a lot of confidence in playing in the tournament because they went to the Sweet 16 last year. And I'm assuming most of those kids are back.

There's no easy draws. It kind of got off to a whacky start when you saw Syracuse as a 5 seed. This time last week they were a bubble team. You didn't even know if they'd get in. Then you look at team like George Washington, who finishes 26-2, and they're an 8 seed.

In this tournament, you never know. In a year where there's no great, dominant teams, I think the seed is just a number. Outside of one 16 and two 15's, after that I think it's just a mixed-match of a lot of good teams.

On if this year's UW-Milwaukee team presses and plays in a similar fashion to last year's team, despite the departure of their coach — Bruce Pearl

Sampson: Yeah, the head coach was Bruce's assistant, so he kept the same type style. They're going to press you, they're going to run at every opportunity. They're talented.

I watched them play at Wisconsin early in the year, this was back in December, and it came right down to the buzzer and I thought, 'Wow, they've got a great program there.'

You can tell the great programs because year in and year out they're consistently good. And UW-Milwaukee is to the point now where they're consistently good.

On the possibility of playing Florida in the second round in Jacksonville, Fla.

Sampson: Yeah, that has a lot to do with the tournament.

I really thought like had we gone in and won three games and three days, that we could've put ourself in a position to maybe be in Dallas. And everything being even, you'd rather be close enough where your fans can watch you play.

You've got to play your way into that, and we didn't. But I'll never lose sight of how precious and how special it is to be participating this time of year.

We're in the NCAA Tournament. That means our kids had a good year. Teams that have average years or below average years or not quite good enough years, don't make the tournament. Our kids did and I'm proud of them.

On if having an NCAA Tournament watch party and watching their name come up on the board during the selection show is a pick-me-up for the team

Sampson: I think so. You start over. We've been in this tournament and been about every seed there is. We've been a 1 seed, we've been a 2 seed, we've been a 3 seed. I remember one year we were a 13 seed and beat Arizona and beat Charlotte.

We can win in this tournament. We can beat UW-Milwaukee, I think UW-Milwaukee can beat Oklahoma. The word upset, I don't know that it should be used in this tournament because somebody's seeded higher than somebody. That's just a number in front of a name.

Syracuse is a great example. Two weeks ago they were just hoping to be a 13 seed. They catch lightning in a bottle for four days and look up and they've a 5 seed. Are you playing a 5 seed in Syracuse or are you playing a 13 seed? That's my point.

Everybody after the 1, 2 and 3 seeds are all about even. I think the 16's and 1's, big difference. The 15's and 2's, really big difference there. And sometimes depending on where you play a 3, could be a big difference there. But let's face it, 4/13, 5/12, 6/11, good teams.

In a year where there's no great teams, is there really any upsets after the first round? We played Utah last year in Tucson. We ran out on the court and felt like it was a home game for Utah because they had a lot of fans there. And I do think that matters, but that's the purpose of the pod – to reward teams.

There is no easy draw in this tournament.

On how much is the first round of the tournament about the way OU plays, rather than the other team

Sampson: I'm sure coach Seltzer and coach Green and those guys are probably down in the office right now trying to get (tape on UW-Milwaukee).

The good thing about playing a team like UW-Milwaukee, last year when we played Niagara we only had one tape on them because they won their conference championship. But the good thing is they've been on TV a lot or enough that we'll get a chance to see quite a bit of them.

We didn't practice yesterday and we will not practice today (Sunday). Tomorrow (Monday) is a new day for us — 0-0. We don't have to worry about...the Big 12 Tournament is important. I never, ever discount the importance of playing in tournament play.

Nebraska threw a defense at us that kinda had us on our heels, and it worked. When you have two post guys and neither one can step out and hit a 17-footer, that's a tough defense for you to play. But you know that's over with. Hopefully, we'll be better equipped to attack that the next time we play it.

I'll go down and meet with them (the team) right now (Sunday night) and the first thing I'll do is put '0-0' on the board. Then we'll just try to win our next game and go 1-0. And then you get to the next one.

On how much will it help his team to have three seniors who have already played in the tournament

Sampson: That helps, but they've got to play good.

Look at Kansas today. They had no seniors. I've always said if given a choice of seniors or talent, you always take the talent. Talent is what this tournament's all about.

But if our three seniors will play, it will help us.

On how he felt going into the selection show this year as opposed to the past

Sampson: You know you're in the tournament. It's not like we were a bubble team. We've been in the tournament a long time.

When I think about our losses to Villanova an to West Virginia, those were probably put on the board in terms of good losses. But I want you to think about it now...Belmont, Southern, Alabama, West Virginia, Villanova, Oral Roberts, we played six teams in non-conference that were in the NCAA Tournament. That's good scheduling. The good news is of that of those six teams we won four out of the six. The two that we lost were obviously to Villanova and West Virginia.

But this team's capable of being good. We've played really good basketball this year. We've had some head scratchers, no doubt. But we've had enough good games to draw back on that we can go on a little bit of a roll here.

It can't be which Oklahoma team's going to show up. We've got to show up. It's as simple as that.

On the key to turning it around

Sampson: This week we are going to get our team back. We haven't been ourselves the last couple of games and we have to get our team back.

They key for that to happen is Taj Gray. It is that simple. Taj Gray can carry this team a long way and he doesn't have to score 20 points to do it. He is capable of doing that with his energy and dominance on the boards. Taj has to play with great energy every second he is on the floor, and he doesn't always do that. He has to learn that he is playing against talented players as well and he has to play at his highest level.

When Taj Gray is only getting six rebounds against Nebraska, you know that we are in trouble. Taj Gray getting only six rebounds against Nebraska is not the way he needs to play.

Terrell Everett and Michael Neal aren't the keys to our team, it is Taj Gray. When Taj is playing like he can, (LaMarcus) Aldridge, (Sasha) Kaun, (Joseph) Jones and the other top big men in the conference aren't better than him.

Taj has to find his self again. He has to find his best game and then play with that game throughout the tournament. If he does, then we have a chance to go a long way in this tournament.


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