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Neal now 'the face of Oklahoma basketball'

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NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ As Oklahoma guard Michael Neal torched Colorado for seven 3-pointers in a game last February, teammate Kellen Sampson remembers hearing the distinct voice of a fan behind the Sooners' bench in Boulder: ``Who is this guy?''

That game started a four-game stretch during which Neal hit 26 3-pointers. A couple of games after that sizzling run ended, the Sooners went on the road again, to Texas, and Sampson recalls hearing another fan exclaim as Neal came off a screen and caught the basketball, ``It's Neal!''

That stretch could be considered a primer course on Neal for opposing fans and teams. They'll be learning a lot more about Neal this season, if the Sooners have their way.

Last season, Neal was the Sooners' fourth or fifth offensive option, behind the now-departed trio of Kevin Bookout, Taj Gray and Terrell Everett. Now, as one of only two returning starters, the 6-foot-3 senior from Mesquite, Texas _ last season's Big 12 Conference newcomer of the year _ will enter this season as Oklahoma's offensive option No. 1.

``And two,'' said Sampson, like Neal a senior. ``Right now, he is the face of Oklahoma basketball.''

It's not a role the quiet Neal will shy away from, but during Oklahoma's media day on Thursday, he brushed aside suggestions that he'll have to carry a thin, less-experienced team until other players develop sufficiently.

``I have confidence in my team,'' Neal said. ``If everybody is there for each other, we'll be fine on that court.''

Last season, Neal quickly developed into a steady contributor for the Sooners, who finished 20-9, losing to Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

After earning first-team National Junior College Athletic Association honors as a sophomore at Lon Morris (Texas) Junior College, Neal posted four double-figure scoring games to start his Oklahoma career. He spent much of the season as the Sooners' first guard off the bench before breaking into the starting lineup for the Colorado game and stayed there the rest of the season.

Oklahoma's first-year coach, Jeff Capel, said Neal's current situation reminds him of what he went through as a player. As a freshman, Capel was one of the last offensive options on a Duke team that reached the NCAA title game in 1994. The next season, he became ``option No. 2'' for the Blue Devils.

``It will be more difficult for him,'' Capel said of Neal. ``That's something I've talked to him about ... You're not an afterthought on the scouting report. You're one of the main guys.''

With only 10 scholarship players, the Sooners _ who open their exhibition season on Tuesday, when they host Oklahoma Christian of the NAIA _ need sustained offensive production from Neal, who averaged 12.4 points per game, hit 87 3-pointers and shot 42.4 percent from long range last season.

Otherwise, the Sooners could well match the ninth-place finish in the Big 12 Conference projected for them by league coaches.

``Last year, Mike ... got a lot of open looks because of Gray, Everett and Bookout,'' Capel said. ``Those guys are gone now. I think it's very important for Mike to really expand his game. I think he's done that.

``He's putting the ball on the floor a little bit better. He's using his shot a little bit better and getting to spots on the floor, and sort of being a playmaker. The play may be to shoot the shot. The play may also be to create something for someone else. Where he has to really grow _ and I think he's taking steps to do that _ is trusting his teammates and trusting that they're guys who are going to make plays.''

Neal seems to have grasped that concept, as he consistently emphasized Thursday the need to make sure his teammates are involved.

``The motion offense we'll run this year will give a lot of people opportunities to do things,'' Neal said. ``You'll have opportunities to share the ball and people can do things to where you can't just concentrate or focus on one person.''

Still, his teammates say, Neal will be the focal point of the offense.

``Mike Neal's (role) is to put the ball in the basket,'' senior forward Nate Carter said. ``The thing that is most important is we have to help him. Everybody is going to know about Mike, that he can shoot.''

Sampson said that showing leadership will come naturally to Neal.

``Mike was kind of a quiet leader last year,'' Sampson said. Other players might have been more vocal, ``but it was Mike's demeanor that really, really drove us. He doesn't say much, so the only way you could get a feel for him last year was his body language. If he was upbeat and positive ... we felt like we were rolling.''

Neal wants to maintain that quiet sense of confidence as his college career nears its end.

``At the end of the day, I'm a senior,'' he said. ``I want to go out as a winner. I want to have a good year and have fun as well.''
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