NEW YORK (AP) – While most head coaches arrive on the court after their teams have begun their warmups, Oklahoma’s Kelvin Sampson wants to be there from the start.
The third-ranked Sooners return four starters from a team that reached the Final Four last season, but it’s the new guys Sampson wants to see even before they start their career tonight against No. 8 Alabama in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden.
“Two of our top seven are true freshmen and I’m not sure how it will be for kids from Stroud and Midwest City, what it will be like trotting down that tunnel in New York, on national TV, against No. 8 Alabama,” he said referring to in-state recruits Kevin Bookout and DeAngelo Alexander. “I would like to be in front of them to watch their eyes as they take the court.”
It could also be fun to watch Sampson’s face before the nightcap of the opening doubleheader.
“I’ve got butterflies,” he admitted about his first time coaching in what is called “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” “There’s very few venues as a coach that you sit there and say ‘I’d like to take a team there and play.’ But Madison Square Garden is a little bit special. That’s a place where everybody would like to go at least once in their career. I’m tickled to death our kids are getting to play there. I’d be more tickled if they win.”
The Top Ten matchup follows Syracuse against Memphis, while tomorrow night’s doubleheader has Villanova against No. 18 Marquette and No. 4 Texas meeting No. 16 Georgia.
The seventh annual Coaches vs. Cancer Classic has a different format because of the NCAA’s changes concerning exempt games. Instead of a four-team tournament, there will be the four games with no champion crowned.
“I’d rather have the tournament atmosphere if the games are exempt,” Georgia coach Jim Harrick said. “If they’re not exempt, then it’s not feasible to have the tournament concept.”
Teams used to be allowed to play in a multi-game event and count it as one game against its season allotment. The NCAA has ruled teams may only play in two exempt events in a four-year period so tournaments such as this and early seasons staples like the Maui Invitational, Preseason NIT and Great Alaska Shootout have had to scramble as far as their fields are concerned. A judge is reviewing a suit by the exempt events that hopes to restore the situation to the way it was.
“I’m tremendously disappointed, all coaches are,” Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim said. “The tournament format got more people involved and excited. The exempt events in November have been great for college basketball. I don’t think there’s any benefit for losing these exempt events.”
The games will be the debut of some highly regarded freshmen.
Carmelo Anthony, who Boeheim said reminds him of former Syracuse star Billy Owens as a freshman, will make his debut in tonight’s opener and Memphis coach John Calipari paid him quite a compliment.
“I told our kids that we have to understand this kid can embarrass you,” said Calipari, whose team won the NIT at Madison Square Garden in March but then lost freshman Dajuan Wagner to the NBA. “We’ll pick straws to see who guards him.”
Villanova’s six-man freshman class – four of whom are from the New York area – will play its first game the next night against Marquette and star junior Dwyane Wade.
“I’m a little bit worried that it could be a bigger deal to them,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “It could go either way with freshmen, but I’m glad they’re on our side.”
The event, which has raised over $2 million for cancer research, is sponsored by AT&T Wireless.