July 26, 2000
NORMAN, Okla. - Oklahoma Men's Basketball Head Coach Kelvin Sampson recently took time from his busy recruiting schedule to talk about his program.
Question: Last year your team finished 27-7 overall, OU's best record in 10 years, and participated in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight season. What will you remember about the 1999-2000 Sooners?
Answer: "Our biggest question mark going into last season was experience. We lost four starters from the year before when we went to the Sweet 16. It was almost like we were starting over. Especially when Hollis Price, J.R. Raymond, Nolan Johnson and Kelley Newton were playing their first games ever at this level. But over the years I've realized that uncertainty like that is one of the exciting elements of this profession. It's exciting to see new kids develop, come together as a team, react as one heartbeat and play in a mature way.
"I look back to where we were in October and compare it to where we were in February when we were like a tight fist. I'll always remember the tremendous leadership we had from Eduardo Najera in practice and games. We had some tremendous wins that I'll remember. I'll remember the great home season we had and the great crowds.
"I think resiliency, heart, tremendous courage, great senior leadership and establishing an identity were all important. Obviously, winning 27 games showed that we were good. But the mark of a great team is showing consistency in practice every day and in games. And we did that."
Q: What comes to mind when thinking about the 2000-01 team?
A: "Last year we returned all of our post players but had huge question marks in the backcourt. This year we return all of our guards. Our experience lies in the backcourt. Because of that, I would think that we'll go through our backcourt a lot early in the year. Our frontcourt will be inexperienced, but I like those guys as a group. We'll have great depth and flexibility there. We don't have a great size guy, but they all have good size.
"We'll depend on Jameel Heywood early because of his experience. Aaron McGhee should have a short adjustment period because he practiced an entire year against Kenyon Martin at Cincinnati before going to junior college where he was a first-team All-American. We expect him to hit the ground running. Jozsef Szendrei had a setback when he tore his ACL, but our medical staff expects him back by Dec. 1. Ronnie Griffin is maybe a jack of all trades, master of none. He can do a lot of good things, but he's a kid who I don't think has ever been assigned a role. I think he has the ability to be a good role player for us."
Q: Will you comment on the team's four seniors?
A: "Seniors have a way. We have four good seniors in Jameel Heywood, Kelley Newton, Tim Heskett and Nolan Johnson. In our system over the years, we have given our seniors a lot of responsibility and they have stepped up. I don't expect this bunch to be any different."
Q: How much will the loss of third-team All-American Eduardo Najera affect the team?
A: "We'll replace Eduardo's numbers. But he was like a coach and he did a great job of keeping kids out of trouble on the court. I don't think I've ever coached a kid who anticipated what I was going to do as well as Eduardo did. He had a great grasp of our offense and our defenses. He had a tremendous basketball IQ and feel for the game. But he was unselfish and took that feel and utilized it with some of our new players to keep them out of trouble. That's experience and I don't know how you replace that.
"Someone will have to step forward and be the guy that allows us to get our identity from him. It may be a sophomore this year in Hollis Price - I think he has those abilities. It may be one of our seniors. But we're going to miss that and it's not something that's easily replaced. What we've got to do is switch our strengths around and make our team better. That will be our challenge."
Q: Your recruiting class was ranked as one of the nation's best. What do you like about the incoming players?
A: "The way I would describe this class is that it fits needs. I don't think you recruit randomly or arbitrarily, you recruit purposefully. This recruiting class had a purpose to it. This year we needed players who could come in and play up front. I like the versatility of guys like Daryan Selvy , Ronnie Griffin and Johnnie Gilbert where they can play different positions. I like the low-post scoring of Aaron McGhee and the high-post potential of Jozsef Szendrei.
"I think Blake Johnston will develop into a good point guard in our system. I don't know how much he'll play as a freshman. When you look at this class, it's got a little bit of everything. We've got some pretty good size guys, low-post scoring guys, unselfish guys and also guys that fit Sooner basketball. They're tough and hard-nosed players. I like our recruiting class."
Q: Since you were hired in April 1994, you have stressed building a basketball program. Where does your program stand today?
A: "I've learned that success at our level is about getting better each year. And I don't think you can measure success in number of wins. When you lose a senior class like we did last year and have people say that you're going to be good again, that's what I'm proud of. We've been consistently good. I think you want to be part of a program where expectations are high, and I think we've raised the bar here at Oklahoma. When I look at the tradition of this program, I think it's one of the best-kept secrets in the country. Each year this program puts out a quality product.
"As a coach, the questions you ask yourself are, `Are you getting better?' and `Are you doing it consistently?' There are a lot of programs that have a great year and then you don't hear from them for a while. Well, that means they had a good team. The difference between teams and programs is that programs don't rebuild. They just consistently win. Our goal here has been to build a great program."
Q: Who will likely start at point guard this year?
A: "Our plan right now is to start with Hollis. He isn't a true point guard like a Mateen Cleaves. That's not his natural position, but Hollis can develop into that. He showed signs of that last year. Early last season we played J.R. at the point and Hollis at the two, but as the season progressed, we flip-flopped them because of dependability. We felt Hollis was more dependable. Hollis had some rocky games, but he's very capable. Right now our plan is to put Hollis at the point and J.R. at the two to start the season and then see who evolves."
Q: What will the multi-million-dollar Lloyd Noble Center addition and renovation mean to your program?
A: "First, I want to thank everyone involved in this project. Mary Jane Noble and the Noble Foundation, as well as Bob Coleman, made tremendous commitments. Five years ago, this was a dream. You look at how it's become a reality and it's because of the people behind the scenes. From Donnie Duncan, who kind of helped start this dream, to Joe Castiglione, who's has really been the major figure in getting it rolling. And Dave Maloney and Don Halverstadt really kept it alive. I could go on and on.
"When you have a chance to create something like this, you want it to set a standard. You want others to come look at your facility to see if they can build one like it. I think our practice facility will set a standard in our industry. I think we're going to have the biggest and the best. It's been well thought out and well-planned.
"The thing I'm most excited about is that it's going to give our kids a place to play 24/7, 52 weeks a year. During the season we'll still practice on the Lloyd Noble Center floor. But when the season ends, our guys will have the opportunity to go practice in the new gym. And we'll open it to former Sooners. Guys like Eduardo Najera, Corey Brewer, Nate Erdmann, Mookie Blaylock, Kermit Holmes or Skeeter Henry.
"This is Sooner basketball. We want to share this facility with all of our former players. We want them to have a place to develop and work on their games and improve. That's what this is about. The idea of building this facility was hatched with the purpose of helping players improve."