Archive for Friday, January 13, 2006

Sooners struggling without sharpshooter

Ailing juco transfer Neal has missed past 2 games - both losses for Oklahoma

January 13, 2006

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— Walking to his office at 7:30 on a summer morning, Kelvin Sampson would hear a sound that's music to his ears: a player already dribbling in the Sooners' practice gym.

He'd peek through the blinds and see Michael Neal, a junior-college transfer, working on his shot.

Or more specifically, he'd see the sharpshooter knocking down 10, 12 or even 14 shots in a row.

At 9:30 or even 10:30 at night, Sampson would check again and find Neal in the gym then, too.

Now that Big 12 Conference play has begun, those pleasing sights and sounds are no longer present for Sampson.

Neal, the top three-point shooter for the No. 22 Sooners, has missed the past two games with an Achilles injury, and Oklahoma has dropped to 0-2 in Big 12 play for only the second time in Sampson's tenure.

Without Neal, the Sooners (9-4) have gone 8-for-35 from three-point range in losses to Nebraska and Missouri by a combined three points.

Sampson doesn't blame the losses on Neal's absence, noting that the Sooners have committed too many turnovers and missed opportunities to extend leads and win those games.

"We should still be 2-0 without him," Sampson said before practice Thursday.

Sampson said Neal may be cleared to play Saturday at Texas A&M (11-2, 1-1 Big 12), but he's unsure how effective Neal would be after missing a full week of practice. But he knows how valuable Neal can be.

In Oklahoma's most recent win, Neal hit two three-pointers during an 11-4 second-half run that put the Sooners ahead of Alabama to stay.

With the Sooners' top perimeter shooter out of the lineup, opponents are able to play a sagging zone defense against Oklahoma and limit the damage done by leading scorers Taj Gray (15.5) and Kevin Bookout (12.8) inside. When Neal is on the floor, defenders must respect his outside shot and that gives Gray and Bookout more room to operate.

"Michael Neal is a huge part of our team when teams zone us," Sampson said.

Sampson conceded that the Sooners - who once were ranked as high as No. 4 - haven't played up to their ranking, but he believes they still have a chance to develop into the contender they were billed as at the beginning of the season.

Cold shooting has been one of the main problems lately. Sampson said a review of the game tape showed 14 of the 16 three-pointers were uncontested, and he wants his players to continue taking those shots.

Sampson also believes freshman Austin Johnson will continue to develop at the point guard position as he recovers from an ankle injury and Neal's return will be a big lift.

"We're going to bust out of this eventually," Sampson said.

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