Posted: Thursday October 20, 2005 2:38PM; Updated: Thursday October 20, 2005 4:59PM
Taj Gray was named the preseason Big 12 player of the year, but will his presence be enough to lead the Sooners to another conference title?
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Seth Davis will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his Hoop Thoughts column.
This is the second stop on Seth Davis' preseason tour of college hoops camps. Early this week he checked in with Texas.
NORMAN, Okla. -- The sky was still pitch black when I walked into the Lloyd Noble Center at 6:20 Wednesday morning. I arrived at that ungodly hour because Sooners coach Kelvin Sampson had kicked his players out of a sloppy practice the day before and ordered them to return at 6:30 a.m. I didn't have to show up with the players -- the team was still going to have its standard afternoon workout -- but I confess, I came because I was eager to impress Sampson. To borrow one of his favorite phrases, I wanted him to think I had some mud in my blood.
I showed up 10 minutes early thinking I might beat Sampson to the gym. Silly me: The coach arrived at 5:40, just to see which of his guys would show up first. He also wanted to see who would be last, but since everybody was there by 6:10, Sampson said, "Nobody was last." By the time I staggered in sipping my 7-Eleven coffee, the team was already going through drills. I guess that means I was last.
Sampson admitted his decision to cut practice short Tuesday afternoon was somewhat calculated. "Coaches have to create adversity sometimes," he said. "I always kick them out of practice this time of year." (Indeed, Sampson later sat in his office and showed me the practice plan from this time one year ago. On the page he had scrawled, "Bad practice. Kicked them out.") Sampson is always looking to teach his teams toughness, but by creating adversity, he is also fomenting something he considers even more critical -- good chemistry. And, to borrow another of his favorite phrases, if you want to achieve it, you have to emphasize it.
Nary a moment passed during Oklahoma's two practices on Wednesday when everybody on the floor, including assistant coaches, wasn't shouting encouragement and clapping. It was nonstop. Any time a player hit the floor, all of his teammates rushed over to help him up. When Sampson brought the players around him to speak, they held hands. "Chemistry happens when everybody knows when to shoot and when to pass," he said. And later: "When the guys up front are helping the guys who are dragging up the rear, that's what makes good chemistry."
This is a window into why Oklahoma routinely leads the nation in intangibles -- a factor that will once again be critical because this team does not have a single surefire NBA player on its roster. Still, in seniors Kevin Bookout, Terrell Everett and Taj Gray,the Big 12's preseason player of the year, Oklahoma returns the three-man nucleus from last year's team that shared the Big 12 regular-season title. Two guards from last season, Drew Lavender and Lawrence McKenzie, have transferred, and while nobody will say it outright, you can bet Sampson believes those departures will only help his team's chemistry.
Throw in five promising newcomers, including a pair of highly touted junior college transfers, and it's easy to see why Sampson is so bullish on his club. His appetite is certainly in midseason form. Sampson took me and his staff to lunch at Van's Pig Stand, though we got lost on the way because Sampson has a horrible sense of direction (especially during the season). While scarfing down a fabulous plate of fried okra and barbecued ribs (you know ribs are great when the meat falls off the bone; Sampson said the trick is to cook 'em "long and low," meaning over low heat), I parried with Sampson while he shot holes throughout my personal preseason rankings. Most coaches like to talk down their clubs this time of year, but not Kelvin. "Don't sleep on those Sooners," he admonished.
Don't worry, Kelvin. The last thing I do when I'm around you is sleep.