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 Tuesday, November 2
Blue Ribbon Yearbook

LAST SEASON: 22-11 (.667)
COLORS: Crimson & Cream
HOMECOURT: Lloyd Noble Center (11,100)
COACH: Kelvin Sampson (Pembroke State '78)
record at school 103-55 (5 years)
career record 279-203 (16 years)
Ray Lopes (College of Idaho '87)
Bennie Seltzer (Washington State '97)
TEAM WINS: (last 5 years) 23-17-19-22-22
RPI (last 5 years) 13-39-50-54-39
1998-99 FINISH: Lost in NCAA Sweet 16.

ESPN.com Clubhouse

Oklahoma basketball under Kelvin Sampson had been incredibly consistent. Always in the first division, never the conference tournament champion. Always an NCAA Tournament invitation, never an NCAA victory.

The Sooners were running according to form last March. They tied for second in the Big 12, lost at the league tournament, earned an NCAA bid and, as a No. 13 seed, drew dangerous Arizona a team that should have had plenty of postseason motivation after getting drummed out by Utah the previous year.

But that's where the consistency ended. Oklahoma pulled off one of many first-round shockers with a one-point victory over the Wildcats, then played its best game of the season in whipping UNC Charlotte in the second around.

The Sweet 16 berth was a first for Sampson, the first for the Sooners in the nineties. And even though their run ended in a ruggedly played loss to regional champion Michigan State, Oklahoma ended the season feeling very good about itself.

"It would be unfair for me to say winning that first [NCAA] game wasn't a big deal," Sampson said. "It was a very big deal. Huge. For what seemed like the longest time, we'd fight our way through the woods, reach the brink of the river and would never be able to cross it, never be able to even get to the bridge.

"It was very important for us get that first win. The fact that it was over Arizona, not just a good seed but a great program, made it that much more special."

Blue Ribbon Analysis

Not many in the Big 12 could lose four starters and still be considered an league championship contender. Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma State maybe. But Oklahoma has now reached that point under Sampson.

Last year was remarkable not just for OU's first Sweet 16 appearance since the raucous days of Billy Tubbs but for getting to second place in the conference. The Sooners weren't among the league leaders in scoring or rebounding. They were terrible (.651) at the line. But opponents couldn't handle their defense or three-point shooting.

Oklahoma's 707 three-point attempts were 64 more than anyone else in the Big 12. Two of every five field-goal attempts were launched from behind the arc. About half the time, Oklahoma shot better outside the arc than inside.

Two of the guys responsible for that, Eric Martin and Michael Johnson, are gone. Transfers and freshmen will have to make the adjustment to Division I quickly.

But the key element has returned. Once again, Sampson fielded job offers. He listened, turned them down again and will live in Norman for at least another season.

The March triumphs put Oklahoma and Sampson in a new place.

The program has long been respected. Sampson has won everywhere he's coached. At Oklahoma, where fans feasted on the bludgeoning of opponents by Billy Tubbs' frantically paced teams, the tempo had slowed under his successor's more disciplined tactics. But as long as the Sooners were winning, it didn't matter. The Lloyd Noble Center was filled.

But getting to the Sweet 16, heck, even getting one tournament victory, has made a big difference. Just ask Sampson

"In terms of credibility, it gives our program more respect," he said. "This was something we needed to accomplish here. You can tell the effect it's had in recruiting. Kids say they watched us beat Arizona. It's helped us in scheduling, because we're getting more high profile games on network TV.

"We'd been to four straight NCAAs. We'd always played pretty well in January, February and early March. We've had the kind of consistency many programs would love to have. But that run kind of completed everything. It took us to another level."

Now Sampson has to figure out a way to stay there. Or at least make it work this season. It won't be easy with four departed starters, but the one returning is the best, forward Eduardo Najera. Plus, others with some starting experience are back. And so is a player, guard Kelley Newton, who was slated to start a year ago but wrecked a knee right before the season.

Oklahoma may have surprised people by reaching the Sweet 16. But it should come as no surprise that the Sooners are considered one of the top Big 12 teams again. Only Oklahoma and Kansas have been to the NCAA Tournament in each of the Big 12's three seasons, and the Sooners' 18 straight years in either the NCAA or NIT marks the fourth longest postseason streak in the nation.

Oklahoma should extend it this year.

(6-8, 235 lbs., SR, PF, #21, 15.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.2 apg, 34.4 minutes, .415 FG, .342 3PT, .642 FT, Cornerstone Christian Academy, Tex./Chihuahua, Mex.)

Those at the TWA Dome didn't soon forget the crash. Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves knocked heads with Najera, blood dripping from Najera's mouth as he lay unconscious. Cleaves rose first; Najera about five minutes later. The Spartans went on to win the Sweet 16 game. Najera was done.

The collision was typical of the way Najera plays all out, all the time. He has the strength of an all-terrain vehicle, but he comes fully equipped. Najera not only led the Sooners in rebounding, he also averaged nearly five three-point attempts per game. He ranked second on the team in both blocked shots and assists.

A native of Chihuahua, Najera is one of the few Mexicans playing Division I ball which makes him proud and sad.

"It means a lot to me, being from Mexico and being recognized for what I'm doing in basketball," Najera said. "I like being a role model. But there should be more support from the [government] so more kids can come up to the United States and play ball."

Najera made it to San Antonio in 1994. He played high school ball in Mexico until his senior year, then traveled to Texas in a student exchange program in hopes of earning a college scholarship.

He was so good at Cornerstone Christian, major programs quickly found him. Duke showed some interest, but Najera wanted to stay in the southwest. He considered New Mexico and Oklahoma State before settling on OU.

After living with a family in San Antonio, Najera found the going rough on his own in Oklahoma. Language remained a problem. Simple things like knowing how to order food in a restaurant was a challenge.

Then there was the matter of smoothing out the rough edges of his game. No doubt Najera's abilities provide more opportunities than for others his size. But it didn't come easily at the major college level, and a stress fracture in his foot slowed his growth.

Things fell into place nicely for Najera last season. At times he dominated games, like the 19-point, 17-rebound performance against Oklahoma State. Sampson calls Najera a work in progress. If so, the finished product should be one of the nation's best this season.

"He's just beginning to realize he can be a great player," Sampson said. "I've had a lot of closed door meetings with him, talking about accepting the challenges of being a great player. He's just now realizing that he can be that guy."

(6-10, 255 lbs., SR, C, #33, 4.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.1 apg, 0.6 bpg, 19.5 minutes, .531 FG, .636 FT, Jenks HS/Tulsa, Okla.)

Stone started 18 games last season and shared the center position with Victor Avila. He led Oklahoma in field-goal percentage, but his scoring average probably won't get into double figures.

"He's an intangibles and little things kind of guy for us," Sampson said. "It's not his role to score big."

Stone understands.

"I gave up on being a pretty player a long time ago," he said. "That's not my game. I try to be a solid player [who] keeps the machine working. A good night for me is when the team wins and I've done what it takes to be a part of that."

(6-4, 215 lbs., JR, SF, #5, 19.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.9 steals, .550 FG, Kilgore JC, Tex/Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Johnson figures to be Oklahoma's next big scoring threat. He'll be the team's best one-on-one player, just as he was at Kilgore JC, where he was named second-team junior college All-America. This is the most important recruit for the Sooners, the guy who needs to supply many of the points that left with four departed starters.

"We want Nolan to be our guy who, when the shot clock is down to 10 seconds, takes the ball to the hole," Sampson said. "He has that kind of ability."

Johnson is a left-hander who actually finished his transfer academic requirements at Garden City (Kan.) CC.

"He can play either wing position," Sampson said. "He's a barrel-chested guy who will put the ball on the floor and get past a defender. He can create shots for himself and others."

(6-2, 195 lbs., JR, SG, #20, 17.7 ppg, 4.3 apg, 3.9 rpg at Neosho CC, Kan., in 1997-98, Wyandotte HS/Kansas City, Kan.)

Newton was penciled in as the starting off guard last year when he tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee during a Halloween scrimmage. He had surgery on Nov. 20 and missed the season.

Newton came up big at Neosho CC two years ago, leading the team to a 27-5 record. He is a good shooter (.448 from the arc and .899 from the line in 1997-98). Oklahoma will need that, since Newtown is replacing perimeter specialist Eric Martin.

"He was one of the few junior college transfers who could have had an immediate impact on us last year," Sampson said. "He has a great basketball IQ."

(6-2, 180 lbs., SO, PG, #11, 18.1 ppg, 6/1 apg, .420 3PT, Mt. Zion Christian Academy, N.C./Gastonia, N.C.)

Raymond sat out last year as a partial qualifier and figures to take over the point guard spot. He also used the year to have ankle surgery and has since recovered.

"There were some days last year when things weren't going well in practice and I thought how much better we would be if we had Raymond," Sampson said. "So now we'll see."

Raymond's quickness sets him apart, and Sampson wants to see him put those fast feet to use on defense. Like his predecessor, Michael Johnson, Sampson will ride Raymond hard in the preseason.

At Mt. Zion, he once played with Tracy McGrady.

(6-1, 185 lbs., JR, G, #14, 9.5 ppg, 2.2 apg, 1.8 rpg, 26.9 minutes, .443 FG, .473 3PT, .836 FG, Lexington HS/Lexington S.C.)

Sampson calls him "old man river, because he just keeps rolling along."

Heskett could get some spot starts. He is good enough to start, and did so nine times last year when Oklahoma was figuring out what to do when Kelley Newton went down.

He ranked fourth in minutes played. Heskett doesn't have great quickness, but he possesses just about every other quality Sampson likes in his players.

"He ranks very high in responsibility, accountability and dependability," Sampson said.

Heskett is Oklahoma's second-leading returning scorer, and he is the school's career leader in three-point percentage at .422. He was also on the receiving end of a punch last December from an American University-Puerto Rico player during a tournament game in San Juan, resulting in a bench-clearing fracas and a 2-0 forfeit victory for the Sooners.

(6-10, 255 lbs., SR, C, #32, 3.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 8.9 minutes, .459 FG, .604 FT, Scottsdale CC, Az. & Cornerstone Christian Academy, Tex./Culican, Mex.)

If Avila rated as one of the big disappointments last year, it was because expectations were unreasonable. He was named the preseason Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. The Sooners needed a big man and he was going to fill the bill.

But Avila never seemed comfortable last season, and he always seemed a step slow. Part of that was foot surgery from the previous summer. He had broken his foot before his final season of junior college.

Once last season started, it was difficult for Sampson to find him minutes. Renzi Stone started at center the first part of the season. Then Sampson made a lineup switch and went smaller and faster. That put Stone on the bench and Avila behind him. During a late-season stretch, Avila logged fewer than five minutes in five of six games.

"Victor has to become more solid and dependable," Sampson said. "And he can do it. His goal is to step up and become a better player in practice."

Sampson sees optimism in Avila's 40-minute projections of 15 points and 14 rebounds.

Avila picked Oklahoma because of Najera, whom he followed at Cornerstone Christian in San Antonio.

(6-6, 230 lbs., JR, F, #34, 17.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg, Coffeyville CC, Kan. & Salisbury Prep, Conn./Bronx, N.Y.)

A native of the Virgin Islands, Heywood figures to back up Najera. But he could start if Sampson chooses to go small and sit Renzi Stone.

Heywood was a late addition to the Oklahoma roster. He had always been a recruiting target, but the Sooners made him a priority once Humphrey decided to transfer.

"He's a blue-collar guy, a tough kid who makes hard baskets," said Coffeyville CC coach Jay Herkelman. "He's Coach Sampson's kind of guy. He's all about winning."

Heywood started every game for two years at Coffeyville, which went 43-21 in two seasons. He grew up in the Bronx and originally attended Evander Childs HS.

(6-3, 205 lbs., FR, G, #30, 17.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 7.3 apg, Central HS/Little Rock, Ark.)

This lefty helped Central High to a 29-3 record and a No. 17 ranking in the final national prep poll of USA Today. Sampson said he is capable of starting at either wing, but is more likely to see action off the bench.

"The way we play, he could start at any of our positions on the perimeter," Sampson said. "His presence will be felt immediately."

(6-1, 160 lbs., FR, G, #10, 25.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 6.2 apg, St. Augustine HS/New Orleans, La.)

Price was considered the best player out of New Orleans after leading his school to the state championship and earning state tournament MVP honors. He also was the point guard on the 17-and-under AAU team that won the national title in 1998.

He'll back up the point, play some shooting guard and, like Hart, should play 15-20 minutes per game this season.

"Quick, explosive off the dribble and a scorer," Sampson said.

(6-1, 160 lbs., SO, G, #3, 0.0 ppg, 0.5 rpg, 1.8 minutes, Tom C. Clark HS/San Antonio, Tex.)

The goal for Cano is to eventually move into a key reserve roll. Unfortunately for him, Sampson recruited many guards for this season.

(7-2, 235 lbs., SR, C, #22, 0.2 ppg, 0.3 rpg, nine appearances, Weatherford JC, Tex./Kiev, Ukraine)

Reztsov played in nine games and scored one basket. He picked up mononucleosis just before the season and was never a factor for the Sooners.


(6-0, PG, 11.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.9 apg, 35.7 minutes, .363 FG, .331 3PT, .806 FT)

Johnson's statistics didn't overwhelm you, but his value to the Sooners cannot be underestimated. Sampson is fond of saying a point guard has nothing to do with statistics. He's right in Johnson's case. He called Johnson his most valuable player, "because he's the guy we can least do without."

Sampson is the kind of coach, who, if he gets mad at his center, he'll yell at his point guard. Johnson understood. He took Sampson's screaming earlier in his career knowing it was only meant to make him a better player. It paid off.

(6-5, SF, 12.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 29.9 minutes, .418 FG, .436 3PT, .817 FT)

When Martin's shooting touch briefly left him, Sampson found him shooting in the gym some four hours after a home game. Martin said he knew the team managers were in the building washing clothes and that he wouldn't get locked in.

That's what Sampson will miss about Martin. That and the 43.6 percent he shot from three-point land. Martin was Oklahoma's second-leading scorer and most dependable perimeter shooting starter.

(6-8, PF, 11.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 26.8 minutes, .502 FG, .447 FT)

This is one of those transfers that didn't need to happen. Humphrey was one of the Sooners' top players, their best around the basket, and that was the problem. He didn't always want to hang around the basket.

Humphrey had just scored 20 points against Colorado when the Sooners met Oklahoma State. He did not score against the Cowboys and attempted just three field goals, all stickbacks. In the locker room after the game, coaches tried to console Humphrey. But that was the last straw.

Humphrey was starting to complain to his family about his role in the offense. By April, he had decided to leave. Humphrey offered his game to other programs and Notre Dame accepted. The Fighting Irish are coached by Matt Doherty, who once tried to recruit Humphrey as a Kansas assistant.

Humphrey will be missed. He struggled at the free-throw line, but did just about everything else well. Humphrey was one of the toughest rebounders in the Big 12. His numbers would have been even better, but fouling out of 10 games limited his minutes.

"When the ball goes to the rim, and everybody wants it equally, Ryan's going to get it," Sampson said.

The shame of Humphrey leaving is that he's an Oklahoma guy, from the same Tulsa high school that produced OU legend Wayman Tisdale. He was the most prized recruit in Sampson's tenure, a consensus Top 50 product.

(6-3, SG, 3.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.2 apg, 18.9 minutes, .308 FG, .286 3PT)

Spaulding was the team's defensive stopper. His long arms allowed him to guard players three inches taller. When Oklahoma got points from Spaulding, like the 14 he scored against Texas A&M, it was a bonus.

(6-2, G, 0.3 ppg, one appearance)

Ainooson played in six games and scored a basket. He was a walk-on and a practice player only.

Scoring? Three of the top four scoring leaders are gone, and the Sooners will depend heavily on newcomers to provide the points.

Rebounding? Usually not a problem, because Sampson's players are well schooled here. But losing Ryan Humphrey hurts.

Chemistry? There are four new starters. The Sooners could take some lumps early just trying to find an identity.

Najera! A Charles Barkley game, but with an ideal temperament.

Sampson! No matter the team, he always has them playing well toward the end of the year.

Quickness! The Sooners have many new faces. All have legs that can fly.

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