NORMAN, Okla. - The more things change, the more they stay the same. That's the concept in 2006-07 for a storied Oklahoma men's basketball program that is being piloted by first-year Sooners mentor Jeff Capel.
Gone from last year is coach Kelvin Sampson, OU's all-time leader in winning percentage (.719). Gone is forward Taj Gray, the Sooners' leading scorer and rebounder the last two seasons. Gone is guard Terrell Everett, the team's second-leading scorer and nation's third-leading assists man in 2005-06 (6.9 per game). And gone is big man Kevin Bookout, an Academic All-American and the owner of OU's second-best career field goal percentage (.574).
Going nowhere, says Capel, are Oklahoma's winning ways.
Though the Sooners lost three of their top four scorers from last year's 20-9 NCAA Tournament squad and return just 44 percent of their scoring, 45 percent of their rebounding and 45 percent of their assists, Capel is nothing if not downright excited for his first season in Norman - the 100th in OU history.
At 31 years of age, the nation's second-youngest head coach is well-versed with the lengthy list of legendary Oklahoma coaches and players that preceded him. He has acquainted himself with the fact that the Sooners have been to the NCAA Tournament 11 times in the past 12 seasons and that they boast the nation's longest current postseason streak at 25 years. Capel says his team is shooting for consecutive year No. 26, and it's going to be a close-knit-team approach that will help it achieve its objectives.
"Our goal this year -- and it will be the same every year -- is to become the best team we can be and to put ourselves in a position to compete for championships," said Capel, who coached Virginia Commonwealth to a 79-41 record over the last four years. "Whether we're in a preseason tournament, a postseason tournament or the conference regular season, that's what it's going to be.
"We want to grow each day, get better each day, get closer as a unit and as a family, learn how to depend on each other, how to trust each other and do it at the highest level possible. I think teams and programs that learn how to do that are the ones who have a chance to become special. That's what we're going to try to establish this first year, and then we'll try to build on that."
Michael Neal (6-3, 198, Sr., Guard)
Chris Walker (6-3, 192, Sr., Guard)
David Godbold (6-5, 215, Jr., Guard)
Kellen Sampson (6-1, 186, Jr., Guard)
Austin Johnson (6-3, 160, So., Guard)
Tony Crocker (6-5, 187, Fr., Guard)
Bobby Maze (6-2, 175, Fr., Guard)
A candidate for first-team All-Big 12 honors, 6-3 senior guard Michael Neal headlines a seven-man backcourt that includes two seniors, two juniors, a sophomore and a pair of freshmen.
Neal, one of the country's top 3-point shooters last season, averaged 12.4 points and 2.0 assists per game as a junior. In Big 12 play, he averaged a team-high 14.8 points, shot .495 from 3-point range and set a conference record with 3.9 treys per league game. During a four-game stretch in February, Neal drained 26 triples (an average of 6.5 per contest). He did all of that while battling injuries to his foot, groin and thumb on his shooting hand.
Now injury free, Neal aims to close his collegiate career with a bang. His coach has cautioned him, however, that OU's opponents will be gunning for him.
"He's had a great summer," said Capel of Neal. "The thing that I've tried to talk to Mike about is that he's a marked man now. Last year he was maybe the third or fourth guy the opposing defense was worried about. Now he's going to be the first guy. Everyone knows his ability to shoot the ball. What we've tried to talk to him about is doing things like maybe using his shooting ability -- because guys will be crowding him and chasing him -- to become more of a playmaker."
Capel continued, "We still think he'll be able to score the ball for us and do some really good things. We're really looking forward to coaching him and to him providing leadership to this group."
Another senior guard whom Capel and his staff will be counting on to provide leadership and playmaking ability is Chris Walker. A 6-3 left-handed point, Walker started seven of the team's first 10 games last season but only played in seven of the final 19. The former Northern California Junior College Player of the Year has a renewed outlook since the introduction of OU's new staff. Capel thinks Walker can be productive for the Sooners.
"Chris has really worked hard this summer and the first thing we told him when we got here was that it's a clean slate. We said, 'It's a new year, you have an opportunity. Bust your butt and prepare for it.' And he's done that.
"He's a guy who can play at a very high speed for us. He has a chance to be a really good defender. We need Chris to be a confident ball handler for us, get us into stuff, run our offense and be able to knock down open shots. He needs to be a solid guy and I think he'll be able to contribute and do those things."
"He has a lot of talent, it's just a matter of getting all of that talent out of him," said Capel of Godbold. "We're trying to get him to learn how to work at a higher level and be more consistent with that. If he learns to work that way, I think he can become a more consistent player. With his size and athleticism, he's a guy who should be a really good defender and rebounder for us. We're going to need that from him."
Despite the fact that Austin Johnson was plagued all of last year by an ankle injury that 19-year OU basketball trainer Alex Brown deemed one of the worst he's ever seen, the lanky guard started 13 of his 24 outings (10 Big 12 games) in his freshman season. The 6-3, 160-pound combo guard averaged 3.1 points, 2.0 boards and 1.9 assists in almost 18 minutes a game. He scored a season-high 14 points in a win over Alabama and canned four 3-pointers in a Big 12 Tournament game against Nebraska.
Said Capel, "In looking at film from last year, A.J.'s talented and can do some things. We're just excited about getting him back healthy as close to 100 percent as possible and then having a chance to see what he can do. He's the one guy who wasn't able to do anything during individual workouts in the spring because of his injury. Just looking at last year, he's long, he's athletic, he was able to run the offense and hit some open shots. He really showed signs, when healthy, that he can be a very good player."
A talented freshman duo also has Capel smiling. Wing Tony Crocker and combo guard Bobby Maze, who both attended The Patterson School in Lenoir, N.C., possess speed, quickness and athleticism -- traits that suit the head coach's up-tempo system.
Crocker, who in the summer showed that he has the potential to be one of the team's best all-around players, brings a lot to the table. The 6-5, 187-pounder can hover above the rim with his leaping ability, is an in-your-face defender and has a knack for putting the ball in the basket. The city player of the year in San Antonio, Texas, two years ago, Crocker was limited to 10 games in prep school last season due to injury. He averaged 15.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists for a Patterson team that finished 34-3.
"He's very explosive," said Capel of Crocker, who was rated the nation's No. 80 overall player by Rivals.com last year. "He can score the ball in a lot of different ways and has a very good feel for the game. I love his competitiveness. He's a little bit different from a lot of guys. Everyone talks about how they want to be good. Tony talks about it but he works at it to try to make himself really good. I love his competitive nature."
Maze, whom Capel signed in early June, is an Allen Iverson look-a-like and claims to pattern his game after the perennial NBA All-Star. The 6-2, 175-pound guard loves to push the ball on offense and is noted as a good passer and shooter. Rated by Rivals.com as the country's No. 135 player last year, Maze averaged 14.0 points and 5.0 assists for talent-laden Patterson. He is expected to compete for playing time at both the point and shooting guard positions.
"Bobby is a young man who will give us depth at the guard position -- hopefully at both guard spots. He's another competitive player. He's very talented, really fast. As he continues to develop he will be a very good player for our program."
Rounding out the backcourt is junior walk-on guard Kellen Sampson. Son of OU's former head coach, Sampson redshirted the 2003-04 campaign and played in each of the past two. Sampson, a future coach who is scheduled to graduate in December, says he is in his final season in Norman. Last year he saw 33 minutes of action over seven games. Capel said more playing time could be in Sampson's near future.
"Kellen's a guy who has really worked his butt off. He's a tremendous young man and a good player. He's a very good teammate and he's always trying to help everybody. You can tell he's going to be a coach and you can tell he's a coach's son. He could see some minutes for us this year and he's prepared himself for that. We're excited he decided to continue to be with the program and to finish out his last year."
Nate Carter (6-6, 220, Sr., Forward)
Longar Longar (6-11, 228, Jr., Center)
Taylor Griffin (6-7, 232, So., Forward)
Keith Clark (6-8, 245, Fr., Forward)
Beau Gerber (6-7, 204, Fr., Forward)
Opportunity awaits in the paint this year for a group of big guys that is long on potential but short on experience. Five Sooners will comprise the frontcourt and the squad's three returnees have a combined five OU starts among them.
Leading the frontline charge for the Sooners in 2006-07 will be 6-6, 220-pound senior forward Nate Carter. A second-team All-Big West Conference performer as a sophomore at UC Riverside in 2003-04 when he averaged 15.3 points and 6.8 rebounds, Carter sat out the 2004-05 campaign before averaging 6.0 points and 3.4 boards in 16.7 minutes per game last season. The team's leading returning rebounder, Carter shot .471 from the field, .375 from 3-point distance and .804 from the free throw line. His playing time fluctuated in his first season as a Sooner and, as a result, so did his output.
Said Capel, "Nate, and he'll tell you this, had a pretty tough year last year. Anytime you sit out a year, that first year back is hard. You have to get acclimated again to playing college basketball, to playing under a whistle, to playing under the lights and things like that.
"I think Nate is very excited about a fresh start and he's prepared himself for it. He's done a very good job of getting in the gym, working out and trying to improve upon the things that we've talked to him about. We're really looking forward to him being a key contributor on this team."
Figuring to be another significant performer in 2006-07 is junior center Longar Longar, the tallest player on the squad by three inches. Playing behind all-conference performers Gray and Bookout the last two seasons, Longar, who is 6-11 and 228 pounds, has not had an opportunity to showcase his abilities over extended stretches. He has shown he can produce, however. In his lone career start in place of an injured Bookout two years ago, Longar netted 27 points and pulled down seven rebounds. He is shooting .700 from the field as a Sooner. Last year he averaged just 7.2 minutes a game and supplied 2.1 points and 1.9 rebounds. Fans and opponents will presumably get much more familiar with the Sudan native this season.
"He possesses talent," said Capel. "Obviously his size is something we need. I saw Longar in high school and thought he was going to be a tremendous player. I feel the same way right now. He has to learn how to work at a higher level more consistently. I think when he learns that, his game will be more consistent and we'll start to see that talent manifest itself into him becoming a really good player.
"This is a huge year for him in terms of making strides that way. The biggest mistake Longar can make is to think that just because he's the biggest guy means playing time. He has to work and he has to earn it. If he does those things I think he can be a really effective player in the Big 12."
"Taylor's a tremendous young man, he's talented and he's as athletic as anyone in this program," said the OU head coach. "I think his ability to shoot the ball is something that a lot of people may not know about. He works his butt off in the weight room and in conditioning. I think he really wants to be a good player.
"A lot of the things we talk to him about, he's taken those things to heart. He could be a breakout guy for us this year."
Rated as the No. 57 player in last year's national recruiting class by Rivals.com, Keith Clark will bring multiple talents to the table in his first year as a Sooner. The 6-8, 245-pound freshman forward from Oklahoma City's Putnam City High School is an outstanding prospect who has the OU coaches excited about his future. Named the 2006 Big All-City Player of the Year by The Oklahoman, Clark averaged 14.4 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.5 assists per game last year for the Class 6A state champion.
Said Capel, "Keith is a very talented young man -- a big guy who can play on the perimeter. He's very skilled. He can pass it, he can shoot it. We just feel that his talent and his upside are tremendous.
"Keith can kind of be a wildcard guy for us. The thing that excites me about him is his versatility. He can play multiple positions for us, even to a certain extent as a point forward. I can envision him getting a defensive rebound and then leading the break because of his ability and skill level. He really has a good basketball I.Q. He's a big guy, and when he's in shape he's a really athletic big guy. So he could be someone who floats around and plays multiple positions for us."
Beau Gerber is a walk-on forward from Winfield, Kan. Standing at 6-7 and weighing 204 pounds, the first-team Class 5A All-State honoree averaged 16.1 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots last year while putting the finishing touches on a 3.94 high school GPA. Coach Capel said he is pleased Gerber chose to attend OU.
"Beau is someone who we think will be a solid guy for us. He's a great student, a really great kid. He works hard and our guys have seemed to taken a liking to him already. We're really excited about having him in our program."
Capel, a 1997 Duke graduate who started in the national championship game as a freshman, says he's elated to be in charge of the proud Oklahoma program. He knows first hand, however, that success is not granted and that hard work is the key to everything good. For this OU team to be as successful as he believes it can be, Capel said he has to make his players understand the importance of effort and exertion.
"I think the most important thing for our guys is not to just think that it's going to happen," said Capel. "We have to prepare like we've never prepared before and prepare to make positive things happen. So this spring and summer has been about preparation - preparing yourself to be great and learning how to prepare yourself.
"I've been really proud of these guys. They've worked very hard this summer with our strength and conditioning coach. They've been in the weight room, they've been conditioning, they've been in the gym playing. I think a lot of our guys have improved since our two-week individual workout program in the spring and we're really looking forward to the season."