ATLANTA - He's going to win at least one national Coach of the Year honor, but Kelvin Sampson wants badly for everyone to know the real reason the Oklahoma men are in the Final Four.
The coaches' coach - the one who, devoid of pretense, worked his way through the ranks and paid homage to the giants and the lesser-known of the profession - knows that the team he has is simply the best one he has had.
Oklahoma's starting lineup goes without a single identifiable weak link, and there are two solid reserves to boot. "This team, this year, has not played a team that we're not better than," Sampson said, talking about his 31-4 Sooners, who face Indiana at 6:07 p.m. tomorrow in the national semifinals. "Don't think for a moment that coaching got us here."
But watch these Sooners play and it quickly becomes apparent that the phrase Sampson likes to repeat over and over again - "Don't forget where you came from" - is embodied in this group as with all the others he has led since taking his first head coaching gig 21 years ago at Montana Tech in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
Watching reserve Daryan Selvy rise halfway up the backboard is jaw-dropping, but he's going up for a rebound, not a dunk. See standout guard Hollis Price beat his man to a spot and quick-release on a long three-pointer, but also watch him as he's one of the five Oklahoma players looking mud-wrestler elegant as they scramble for a loose ball.
As coached by Sampson, Oklahoma teams over the past eight seasons take care of the ball. They rebound, they make their free throws and in general leave no question about their commitment to any game, regardless of the opponent.
Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell, whose Eagles have played the Sooners seven times since 1991, said that while those teams were athletic, Sampson "has always gotten them to play hard. Even in situations when he hasn't had much talent, the X-factor comes in how hard they play."
Play hard, compete, do things right. Sampson's three commandments make playing for the coach a task that isn't always fun.
Take it from former Oklahoma star Eduardo Najera, who remembers once scoring 17 points and pulling down 10 rebounds in the first half of a game, then being the object of the coach's ire at halftime because the team was down by three points.
"He knew I could take it," said Najera, who now plays for the Dallas Mavericks. "[Sampson] plays with your mind at times. At one point, you're about to quit and you don't like Coach. He knows when you're going to go off, and that's when he starts to change. He knows what he's been doing, and it's been working."
"We get our identity from our coach," Price has said several times in the past. "He doesn't take anything from us, and it shows on the court."
The team's earnestness seems to be a reflection of their coach, who has been a head coach for parts of the past three decades despite being only 46 years old, but has only recently escaped relative obscurity. The coaching tree that spawned Sampson is, predictably, based in North Carolina. But instead of Dean Smith or Mike Krzyzewski, 30-year high school coaching veteran John "Ned" Sampson was his son's greatest influence and was his coach at Pembroke (N.C.) High School.
Recently, Ned Sampson suffered a cerebral hematoma, and may not make this weekend's Final Four, even though his son would want him to.
"God has a plan for that," he said. "If he's able to, that would be something precious for me."
The younger Sampson played basketball and baseball well under the national radar at Pembroke State, one of those schools where the name changes with the wind in search of an identity. (Sure enough, it's now UNC-Pembroke.)
Sampson's only taste of the big-time came in a one-year stint as a graduate assistant at Michigan State under Jud Heathcote, before heading to Montana Tech, where he started as an assistant but became the coach five months later.
Coaching in Butte, Mont., with a $600 recruiting budget, a $1,000 salary and a side job cleaning apartments makes the him identify with his brethren who may never get a chance to coach at a Final Four.
"I represent the guy whose in a NAIA school who would love to get an opportunity - the guy who doesn't have the pedigree," Sampson said, recently thinking of people with distinguished careers who never reached this pinnacle, mentioning Purdue's Gene Keady and former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell. "There's a part of me that says I wish I could share this with the guys I looked up to."
Sampson's affinity is reciprocated in the coaching profession. With the denim shirts that look like they came off the rack and unrehearsed thoughts that avoid the realm of cliche, the coach comes off as a human, not a production.
Keady said he hated it when his Boilermakers beat Oklahoma in the 2000 NCAA tournament, "Because I don't like playing people I like."