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Sampson talks about close wins

Four games. Four one-point wins.

To say the least, it’s been a crazy two weeks for Kelvin Sampson and his Oklahoma basketball squad. And with March Madness fast approaching, the fun has only just begun.

The recording-setting streak of narrow triumphs has kept the Sooners in the running for the Big 12 title, although they will need some help if they hope to repeat last season’s big regular-season finish. Still, after getting off to an inauspicious 0-2 start back in early January, Sampson’s charges have reeled off 11 wins in their last 13 games.

Even though Oklahoma (20-6 overall and 11-4 in league play) hasn’t exactly been blowing the opposition out of the gymnasium, the toughness and determination the team has exhibited have more than made up for any shortcomings.

ESPN basketball analyst Fran Franchilla said after watching the Sooners beat Bedlam rival Oklahoma State earlier this week: “This Oklahoma team is not someone you want to play in the NCAA Tournament. They are probably a closer reflection of their coach than any other team in the country. If you told me they are going to go out and beat a Villanova or someone like that in the tourney, I’d probably say ‘Yeah, I can see that happening.’”

While it’s probably true the Sooners are capable of beating any team in the country, their lack of consistency also makes them vulnerable on any given night. That is one area Sampson hopes his team will improve on as the stretch run approaches.

In an exclusive interview this week, Sooner Spectator’s Jay C. Upchurch spoke to Sampson about his team’s potential and what it will take for the Sooners to advance deep into the Dance.

SS: Do you like where this team is right now and if not, what do you need to do to get to where you want to be?
Sampson: It’s a bit of a dilemma, but we are definitely a better defensive team when Austin (Johnson) is at the point of attack on defense, and Terrell (Everett) is on one of the wings. I think defensively is an area we need to improve on. The thing about playing Austin more minutes is to do that, you have to sit Mike (Neal). That’s the dilemma — do you want Austin on the floor for his defense or Michael on the floor for his offense. Right now, with the Mike’s playing, we choose to go with him.

SS: Is Michael that much of a defensive liability?
Sampson: He’s not a liability at all. He’s just not a guy who defends the point of attack. Mike’s a two guard. He guards twos. Terrell’s a two guard. Austin is comfortable picking up on defense at 94 feet or 80 feet, where as Terrell or Mike are better at defending the wing. They are what they are. It’s not something you can just snap your fingers and change overnight. It’s just something we’ll work out as we go.

SS: Are you happy with the offense at this point?
Sampson: Offensively, we’ve been good. Once we got a few of our guys healthy, we picked it up on the offensive end and have shown more consistency. Sure, we’d like to make a few more shots, but I like what we are doing on that end of the floor. One thing we need to do better is take care of the basketball.

SS: How have the last few days helped this team, as far as confidence and toughness?
Sampson: I really like this group’s mindset. The way we’ve won our last four games — the key attribute in each of those wins has been toughness. Not very many teams have the ability to play uphill like we have the last few weeks. That’s not something we relish — getting down to an opponent — but as long as you find a way to win, that’s what matters most.

You always see what you are made of when facing adversity. When we started 0-2 in conference, our guys dug down and fought back. They found ways to win games and that’s really shown through the last four games. Unless you have great kids with great character, I don’t know that a team does what we have done.

SS: Going into the stretch run, do you like where this team is headed?
Sampson: Well, we’ve won 11 of our last 13. That gives us a lot to build on over the next few weeks. We just need to keep working on our defense. That’s got to be our main focus. Nate (Carter) is playing better. Kevin’s (Bookout) hand is getting better.

We are obviously going to be tested when we go to Austin on Sunday and even more so at the Big 12 Tournament next week. We’re playing really well in a number of areas, but defense and rebounding are what will win you big games like the ones we have coming up.

SS: Do you feel this team still has its best basketball ahead of it?
Sampson: I really do. When we start locking down better on defense and getting a good mix out there, I believe we can be pretty tough. We’ve built some momentum with our toughness and we need to carry that over to all parts of our game. We are looking forward to what we believe will be a great finish to our season.