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Capel Has Upstart OU on NCAA Bubble
February 12, 2007

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP)  After a couple weeks on the job, Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel figured he had already bottomed out.

Former coach Kelvin Sampson's messy departure amid an NCAA investigation into hundreds of illegal phone calls to recruits left the program on probation. The Sooners' top three players -- Taj Gray, Kevin Bookout and Terrell Everett -- had finished their careers.

Then three high-level recruits secured by Sampson suddenly backed out of verbal commitments.

"That was a tough period, I'm not going to lie," said Capel, the former Duke star who came over from Virginia Commonwealth. "It was really tough for me personally. But I've always felt I don't want guys who don't want to be with me."

The ones who stuck around are suddenly turning heads.

OU vs. Iowa State Preview  

The Sooners, picked ninth in the Big 12 preseason coaches poll, have won four in a row and are 15-8 overall. Their 6-4 mark in conference play puts them fifth, not far behind NCAA bubble teams Texas and Kansas State.

Oklahoma has the Longhorns and the Wildcats left on its schedule, along with games against Missouri and Iowa State. Throw in home games against No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 9 Kansas on national television, and the Sooners have plenty of chances to make a statement during the last three weeks of the season.

"We've won four games in a row, guys are feeling good about ourselves, but we still have to remain hungry and humble," the 31-year-old Capel said. "That's sort of been a mantra of mine."

Capel's peers in the Big 12 say Oklahoma's turnaround came in a Jan. 6 loss to Texas Tech, when center Longar Longar's elbow fractured the eye socket of Red Raider center Esmir Rizvic.

The Sooners' leading scorer began receiving hate mail and threatening letters. Texas Tech coach Bob Knight said he didn't believe Longar should be allowed to play anymore. The Big 12 agreed, in part, by suspending him for two games.

"They had some guys step up," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "Nate Carter to take Longar Longar's spot, it really added another dimension to the team."

Carter, a senior transfer from UC Riverside, has gone from averaging about 5 points per game in the non-conference to more than 19 per game in the Big 12. In last week's 67-60 bedlam upset of No. 17 Oklahoma State, he poured in 18 points and had nine rebounds.

"The key is Nate Carter," Colorado assistant Paul Graham said. "He just had a phenomenal night against Oklahoma State."

Figure in Longar's return and the resurgence of senior guard Michael Neal, and Capel is telling his team that an NCAA tournament berth is still possible.

The Sooners have reached the postseason 25 consecutive seasons, the longest streak in Division I basketball. Twenty of those trips have been to the NCAA tournament, including 11 in the past 12 years.

"One of the deals for us now is how do we deal with success? Struggling through adversity is a great teacher, but also success," Capel said. "There's nothing that can help you deal with success but success itself."

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