Maybe Kelvin Sampson should have known something was amiss way back on a summer morning in 2003. That's when the first of several key injuries occurred.
With banged-up veterans on the sidelines, Oklahoma was led last season by freshmen. The Sooners staggered through a painful season and slipped off the NCAA bubble for the first time in 10 seasons. But that set the stage for what Sampson expects will be a return to the Sooners' March routine.
A young, talented nucleus gained plenty of experience last season. Now, Sampson hopes the Sooners can capitalize. Add the healthy return of junior forward Kevin Bookout and several key newcomers, and the coach positively bubbles.
"Those freshmen got a lot of experience," Sampson said. "They got to play way more minutes than maybe we would have liked, but now they have some experience. Everything those kids did last year is a positive for our future."
FRONTCOURTBookout's shoulder injury last December was the biggest blow to the Sooners' fortunes. It eventually required surgery, ending his season in February. But the junior is expected to be full strength by the opener and should anchor the middle with soft hands and a hulking presence.
Add junior college All-America Taj Gray to the inside mix. After averaging 18.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.3 blocks at Redlands (Okla.) Community College, he'll be counted on to complement Bookout around the basket.
Gray's arrival likely means senior Johnnie Gilbert can return to a spark-plug role off the bench -- the job most suited to his game.
Larry Turner, one of last year's freshmen, began to develop into an intimidating defensive presence. At 6-foot-11, he provides bulk inside and should contribute valuable minutes. Freshman center Longar Longar might not provide much help early, but remember his name.
"Our biggest needs were up front," Sampson said. "We needed to get somebody who could impact us at the post position and we got Taj and Longar. Taj will impact us right away. Longar might not impact us right away because of the depth we have, but he will eventually. Longar has the chance to be a special, special player at the University of Oklahoma. He's 6-11, has long arms and can block shots and run the floor."
BACKCOURTOU's perimeter game was sorely tested last season. It should be a strength this year.
"Loaded with potential," is how Sampson described the backcourt, which is filled with sophomores who played integral roles as freshmen.
Start at the point, where OU's littlest player was asked to perform the biggest role. As a freshman, Drew Lavender (5-7) was up to the task. But with the injuries, he had to carry a larger load than Sampson would have liked. Not only was he asked to run the offense but also to score. He did so, averaging 11.3 points and leading OU in 3-pointers (53), assists (3.9) and steals (1.7).
Lawrence McKenzie, compared by some to former Sooner standout Hollis Price, showed flashes of significant talent last season. The sophomore will battle at shooting guard with junior college transfer Terrell Everett and senior Jaison Williams. Everett is a penetrator who can create shots. Williams showed off an improved perimeter jump shot during summer workouts.
Brandon Foust came on late in the season. The athletic small forward has gained 10 pounds and spent the summer working on his ball-handling. He could win the swing guard position. "Brandon has the chance to be a star, he really does," Sampson said. "He's got all the ingredients."
Kellen Sampson, the coach's son, redshirted last season as a freshman. He could provide depth but is probably a year away from contributing.
FINAL ANALYSISAfter a season in which nearly everything that could go wrong did, Sampson and the Sooners look forward to better karma. Experience should be a big factor, too. Bookout is back in the mix with a hardened, savvier batch of youngsters. The newcomers should also have immediate impacts on Oklahoma's chances.
Together, the recipe appears to indicate a return to the NCAA tournament, and perhaps higher aspirations. "I think we can get back to the NCAA tournament and hopefully win some games," Sampson said. "Everyone has to buy into their roles and continue to improve."