No more Najera, but Sooners could be better

Thursday, November 9th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ Oklahoma lost more than just its leading scorer and rebounder when Eduardo Najera graduated. Coach Kelvin Sampson says the Sooners also lost their identity.

Najera, Sampson says, gave the Sooners instant credibility each time they took the floor. Following Najera's lead, the Sooners reached the NCAA Final Eight two years ago and the second round of the tournament last year.

``My concern is who's going to be our leader day in and day out,'' Sampson said.

There are several possibilities on a roster Sampson said is the quickest and most athletic he has had.

Guard Tim Heskett and swingman Nolan Johnson may fit the bill. Heskett is a tough, emotional player who likely will come off the bench most of the time. Johnson showed flashes of brilliance last season while averaging 10 points per game.

J.R. Raymond, Oklahoma's top returning scorer at 13 per game, and assist leader Hollis Price give the Sooners a solid and experienced backcourt.

``I want kids to be themselves,'' Sampson said. ``It's hard being somebody else. It's important to know who you are and what you're good at.

``Nolan is quiet. Hollis is quiet. Tim is very talkative. But they're their own person, and I want them to lead this team their way.''

Aside from leadership, Najera consistently did the little things that helped lead to victories. Sampson said he has never been around a player who so impacted games in the final few minutes _ with steals, rebounds, forcing bad passes, grabbing loose balls.

``Eduardo was the heart and soul of our team,'' he said.

Unlike last year, Oklahoma's frontcourt is the question mark. The Sooners lost Najera, Victor Avila and Renzi Stone. Other than Jameel Heywood, who averaged 11 minutes per game, the Sooners have no returning frontcourt players.

But Sampson said 6-foot-8 Aaron McGhee, a junior-college transfer who began his career at Cincinnati, is an excellent scorer in the post, which is something the Sooners have lacked. Ronnie Griffin, who is 6-9, is another juco transfer with Division I experience, having started out at Eastern Kentucky. Forward Daryan Selvy scored 22 points per game last year at a two-year college.

``You don't really find out about a team until they face a little adversity. I haven't seen this team in adversity yet,'' Sampson said. ``I don't really have a great feel for this team. I do know we have a lot of winners.''

With more quickness throughout the lineup, look for the Sooners to play at a faster tempo than in past years. But also look for them to continue playing the kind of defense that allowed opponents to average just 62 points per game.

``When you watch us play, you'll see a lot of similarities. It's not like we just completely revamped,'' Sampson said. ``It's the same TV, same cable system, but the channels are different.''

Oklahoma Sooners At-A-Glance

Coach: Kelvin Sampson (Seventh year, 130-62. 18th year overall, 306-210).

Last year's finish: 27-7, tie third Big 12, lost to Purdue 66-62 in second round of NCAA tournament.

Welcome back: Guards J.R. Raymond, Hollis Price, Tim Heskett, Kelley Newton, swingman Nolan Johnson, forward Jameel Heywood.

Wave goodbye: Forwards Eduardo Najera, Victor Avila, center Renzi Stone.

Strengths: Outstanding backcourt, with Price, Raymond and Heskett. Johnson can play guard or forward. Newcomer Aaron McGhee should give Sooners best post scorer in years.

Weaknesses: Newcomers across the front line, with McGhee, Ronnie Griffin, Daryan Selvy and Johnnie Gilbert.

Quotable: ``What is small? This is college. If you're good, you can play.'' Sampson, on whether his team will use a small lineup very often.