- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2002

Kelvin Sampson began his coaching career making $1,000 a year while also cleaning apartments and breaking up late-night parties to earn a living in Butte, Mont. These days Sampson doesn't have to concern himself with odd jobs. The coach of fourth-ranked Oklahoma can afford to spend all his working hours pursuing a second consecutive Big 12 title and Final Four berth.
"What was the name of that movie with Kevin Costner when he was assigned to that Indian outpost 'Dances with Wolves'?" said Sampson, recalling his early coaching days at Montana Tech. "Sometimes I've felt a little like that."
Now, at 46, Sampson is in his eighth year of building a powerful program in an unconventional manner. This season only one of his top seven players began his college career at Oklahoma. The Sooners are a mishmash of junior college transfers who have meshed into one of the nation's top teams, with a 17-3 record entering last night's game with Baylor.
"We always seem to get a bunch of new guys every year," said junior guard Hollis Price, the only starter who came to Norman directly from high school. "At the beginning, we weren't sure how good we could be. Now we realize the Final Four could be a reality."
Sampson has molded the talented and athletic Jucos around shooting guard Price, the team's leading scorer at 18.1 points, after losing three starters from last season. Jabarhi Brown is the only other non-Juco player in the top seven. The 6-foot-10 center from the Virgin Islands, who transferred from four-year Florida International, became eligible at midsemester and stepped in as a starter.
Junior college players are common in lower-level Division I programs, but it's relatively rare to have many in top programs. The Sooners were forced to focus on the Juco route because of injuries, players transferring out and the loss of their starting point guard for disciplinary problems.
"I hear people talk about junior college kids like they have the plague," said Sampson, who sees pluses in their being more physically and emotionally mature. "Some of the greatest kids I've ever coached were junior college kids. It doesn't matter to me if they are a transfer or a high school kid or a junior college kid. I don't remember any asterisks besides any kid's name when they score a basket."
The Sooners brought in Brown and three junior college players: second-leading scorer Ebi Ere, leading rebounder Jason Dietrick and starting point guard Quannas White, a high school teammate of Price's in New Orleans. White, who came via Midland (Texas) Community College, became critical when last season's starting point guard, J.R. Raymond, was kicked off the team after reportedly testing positive on a drug test last February and having other disciplinary problems.
The trio joined senior forwards Aaron McGhee (13.4 points, 7.0 rebounds) and Daryan Selvy, who took the same route a season earlier. The Sooners are an aggressive group that average nearly 10 steals a game and create 17.5 turnovers.
"Our best player [Raymond] from last year was a kid who should be a junior this year," Sampson said. "This is a very junior college-rich area, with Texas and Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas. We would be missing out on a valuable resource if we didn't recruit junior colleges."
Oklahoma gained confidence with a 15-point road victory at Arkansas before outhustling and embarrassing No.3 Maryland 72-56 on Dec.21 to gain national recognition and shoot up in the polls.
"The win at Arkansas was big," said Sampson, whose only losses were against No.2 Kansas, No.24 Texas Tech and Michigan State. "That was a great litmus test. That showed them what happens if you buy in [to Sampsons system] and sacrifice and surrender."
The coach doesn't plan to keep concentrating on junior colleges; he would rather build with high school players whom he could develop for four seasons. Sampson plans to sign three prep players and no Juco players for next season unless circumstances again dictate the latter.
The North Carolina native learned to improvise during five seasons at Montana Tech and another nine at Washington State. Sampson was 25 when he was promoted by Montana Tech from assistant to head man at midseason, and he led the NAIA Orediggers to three Frontier League titles.
"My wife [Karen] and I got a little side job," he said. "We lived in this apartment complex for free because they had me in charge of discipline. Which means at all hours of the night breaking up fights or calling in police to turn down music or people partying too loud. During semester breaks, when kids would graduate and move out of their apartments, we'd clean them for $40. You make ends meet. I was chasing a dream, so that stuff never stopped me."
After two years as an assistant at Washington State, Sampson took over that school's Pacific-10 program in 1987 at 31. After three losing seasons, he led the Cougars to their first NCAA tournament berth in 11 seasons in 1994. At Oklahoma, Sampson's teams have made the NCAAs in all seven seasons.
"I thought this year we would maybe need to take a step back and reload," Sampson said. "But next year I thought we would be pretty good again. This is a surprise. I don't have an ego about it. To say we thought it would happen this way I didn't. Now I feel we have the potential to be the best team we've ever had."

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