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Prelude To Greatness?
Soonersâ€™ Potential Unlimited Next Season
Twenty-five wins, a Big 12 Conference championship and a reappearance in the NCAA Tournament one year after being relegated to the NIT is nothing to hang your head about.
So why was it when Oklahoma's 25-8 Big 12 title-winning season ended with an NCAA second-round loss to Utah March 19, Sooner guard Drew Lavender dropped his chin like it had an anchor attached?
Maybe it had to do with unkept promise.
Win a league as hard-fought as the Big 12, you expect to play NCAA games in Oklahoma City, not Tucson, Ariz. Go 16-2 through late January, you don't expect to have to answer questions like, â€śWhat in the name of Cary Carrabine is wrong with you guys?â€ť in early February. Recover from early February and surge hard into March, you expect to last longer than two rounds in the NCAA.
â€śThis season is over for us now," Lavender said in the Arizona locker room March 19. "We did all we could. It just wasn't meant to be, I guess.
"Tomorrow, I'll be thinking about next year."
Next year, with so many returning players joining much-anticipated newcomers, the Sooners should plan on keeping their promise.
"I'm not quite ready to look at the big picture yet," coach Kelvin Sampson said, about a half-hour after Utah sent OU home March 19. "I'm still wondering about this game. I hurt for our kids. They had an unbelievable year, to win 25 games, be Big 12 champions ..."
Unbelievable is about right, considering the Sooners were scraping bottom just one month earlier.
On Feb. 12, OU blew a pair of double-digit leads and lost in overtime at Missouri. It marked the Sooners' fourth loss in five games. The foundation built by that 16-2 start was cracking.
Heck, the foundation built in Sampson's 11 years in Norman was under duress.
"We're known for playing hard," guard Jaison Williams said from Columbia, "but we just got out-competed."
That was more galling than the 68-65 final score. So a couple things happened.
Senior forward Johnnie Gilbert kept his teammates in the locker room a little longer than usual before boarding the bus back home.
"Johnnie wrote our list of remaining games on the board," said forward Kevin Bookout. "He said, 'There's not a game up here we can't win.'"
The Sooners knew how they had to go about winning them. And if there was any question whatsoever, their coach would make it quite clear.
"This is a gut punch. You find out what you're made of after games like this," Sampson said outside the players-only meeting at Missouri. "We'll get this team back."
Four days later at the shootaround preceeding the Nebraska game, he showed how.
"It was a get-your-point-across shootaround," Sampson said.
The coach walked into the Lloyd Noble Center arena, kicked out the ESPN technicians laying cable and securing wires, and oversaw, in his words, "full combat."
"We went hard the whole time, picked up full court even though we had a game in two hours," said point guard Drew Lavender. "It was like we had two games that day. That's when we knew we had to pick it up the rest of the season."
The Sooners had started 16-2 by unleashing 6-foot-9 junior college transfer Taj Gray on unsuspecting opponents like Duke, Connecticut and Oklahoma State. Well, word had gotten around by February.
OU lost four of five when Gray was surrounded and his teammates couldn't pick up the slack. In a nutshell, they were too passive to do so.
Fueled by the bitter experience at Missouri, the grinding practice that followed, and Sampson's decision to insert freshman wing David Godbold into the starting lineup, the Sooners finally became the aggressors.
They hammered Nebraska, survived Kansas State, upset Kansas, fleeced Baylor, and finished the regular season with road victories at Texas and Texas Tech by a combined 36 points.
The finishing kick earned OU a share of the Big 12 regular season title with Kansas, and the prospect of hosting an NCAA regional in Oklahoma City.
Then a simple, unfortunate thing happened â€” the Sooners stopped making shots.
It cost them a Big 12 Tournament semifinal loss to Texas Tech, which, it turns out, cost them Oklahoma City. Then it cost them a second-round loss to Utah.
It felt pretty rotten. Gilbert, the fifth-year role player who raised awareness at Missouri and then his game the rest of the way, deserved better. So did Gray, the leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker who carried OU the first 2 1/2 months of the season.
There was a sense that if the Sooners could get out of Tucson, they could have some real fun against subpar higher seeds Duke and Kentucky at the regional finals in Austin.
It wasn't quite being blindsided â€” ask Kansas, a first-round loser to 14 seed Bucknell about that â€” but not everybody saw the end coming, either.
"This team's getting better," Sampson insisted as the final day of the regular season closed. "I still think there's some way, some how we're going to get better. I don't think there's a sense that we're done yet."
It's a vibe the Sooners must latch onto when they come together again next fall.
Gray remains the building block. He'll draw the same kind of attention, but now he's had a year of seasoning that should help him play around it.
Bookout remains an X factor, the bookend post who, when on, forms a terrific complement to Gray. But he must stay on for longer periods of time and stop disappearing in pivotal games, a bad habit he got into last season.
Lavender, too, must find his way. His 29-point, game-winning-circus-shot effort at Kansas State did more to save last season than any single performance. But he never quite gelled with backcourt partner Terrell Everett, who was nine inches taller and, therefore, nine times more effective at penetrating Gray-proof zone defenses.
If he isn't the go-to scorer he once was, Lavender can still be a critical component to OU's success. Kansas State was proof of that. So was the Sooners' NCAA first-round victory over Niagara, when Lavender got his team through a chaotic first half with high-speed play and confident shooting.
Everett, like Gray, should be a sounder player now that he's spent a year playing Division I competition. He is already OU's most creative player, and is a dependable outside shot away from earning some national recognition.
Unfortunately, Lawrence McKenzie, who was the Sooners' most reliable 3-point shooter and one of their best one-on-one players, decided to transfer after the 2004-05 season.
Godbold should get better as he develops more confidence and understanding. And Nate Carter, who sat out last year after transferring from UC Riverside, is a reputed scorer with Everett's slashing ability, McKenzie's range and Godbold's aggressiveness. Or so he's touted.
Other newcomers in the Sooner fold include Michael Neal, a 6-3 guard expected to provide immediate help with perimeter shooting and a pair of prepsters whose impact may not be felt quite so soon, guard Austin Johnson and forward Taylor Griffin.
Toss in intriguing 6-10 work-in-progress Longar Longar, and it's easy to see why the Sooners expect to finish what they have started.
It hurt that they couldn't finish in March. There were too many highs along the 2004-05 way for it not to.
But with so many players returning and so many Big 12 teams â€” Kansas and Oklahoma State to name a couple â€” rebuilding, things should be looking up in OU's locker room as 2005-06 comes to a close.
(Guerin Emig is the OU menâ€™s basketball beat writer for the Tulsa World.)