Several Thunder players are familiar with this year’s Final Four participants, having actually competed against them during the NBA lockout last summer.
Nick Collison and Cole Aldrich spent the offseason in Lawrence and frequently played in pickup games with Kansas players.
Nazr Mohammed played at Kentucky and set up one of the Thunder’s voluntary mini-camps this summer on the campus in Lexington.
Kansas, Kentucky, OhioState and Louisville are in this weekend’s Final Four at New Orleans. Kentucky and Louisville meet in Saturday’s first national semifinal at the Superdome, while Kansas and Ohio State meet in the other semifinal. The winners will play for the title on Monday night.
Daequan Cook attended Ohio State for one season before going pro, but rather than spending last summer in Ohio, Cook spent much of his time working out in Oklahoma City to show his desire to re-sign with the Thunder as a restricted free agent.
More than half the OKC roster participated at the Kentuckycamp. The Wildcats are 36-2 and spent much of the season ranked No. 1. For them to advance to the Final Four came as no surprise to Thunder players.
“We were all thinking, ‘They’re pretty good,’ ” said two-time All-Star Russell Westbrook. “All of ‘em are going to be pros. They’re a good team, so they’re going to be all right (at the Final Four). … It was no mystery they were going to be good.”
Mohammed envisioned a big season for his alma mater. “Oh, definitely,” Mohammed said.
NBA two-time scoring champ Kevin Durant saw the same. “Oh, yeah. I did,” Durant said. “I called it. Everybody on our team said they’re the best team in the country. They have five pros on their team. Their sixth man is a pro also. They’re really, really good, man. Being there for a week, we got close to those guys. You talk to them and you pull for them that hopefully they win the championship. Coach Cal (John Calipari) is a great guy. Their whole staff is good. Hopefully they win. They respected us. They came out and competed against us. You could tell they were going to be really good this year.”
Every Thunder player who discussed the Wildcats was quick to mention national player-of-the-year candidate Anthony Davis, who is a lock for the Wayman Tisdale Award as the nation’s top freshman. “Anthony Davis stood out,” Mohammed said. “He’s just such a good kid, worked hard, was trying to find as much knowledge as he could. Terrence Jones, all the guys were good. The surprising part was they were such a tight-knit group for guys who just had met, so that definitely was a good sign.”
It was never the Thunder vs. Kentucky in Lexington. It was always mix and match. Mohammed said at one point there were two courts of 5-on-5 going on side-by-side. “I was really impressed with their talent,” Collison said of Kentucky. “Anthony Davis, when I saw him, I knew he was going to be really good. Yeah, they’ve got a ton of talent, for sure. They were really talented and that was their first couple weeks on campus, too. I’m sure they’ve gotten a lot better since then.”
The same success wasn’t envisioned for Collison’s alma mater, which lost roughly 70 percent of its scoring, rebounding and assists and nearly 80 percent of its 3-pointers off the previous year’s team and still managed to win its eighth straight Big 12 regular-season title.
“Honestly, they’ve really impressed me, man. They’ve overachieved a lot,” Collison said. “This is probably one of the least-talented teams they’ve had in a long time in terms of depth, the number of guys, but the players have done a great job. Guys who didn’t much at all last year really stepped up. … I’m really impressed. They’ve had an unbelievable year. They’ve got a lot of walk-ons playing quality minutes. That’s not always the case atKansas, but those guys have really stepped up and played great. It’s been fun to watch.”
Aldrich smiled and shook his head when asked how he thought this year’s Jayhawks would fare after facing them throughout the summer. “Nick and I kind of joke about it,” Aldrich said. “We were like, ‘Uh, I don’t know about this.’ We thought they’d make the (NCAA) tournament, but we were unsure of how far they would go. To see them in the Final Four, I think huge credit goes out to coach (Bill) Self, not only for getting those guys prepared for the season, but for the guys themselves, for working hard and getting better throughout the season. It shows that a team you think may not have a good year has a great year.”
Mohammed advanced to the national championship game all three seasons atUK, winning the title as a freshman in 1996 and as a junior in 1998, after which he turned pro. Collison made it to the 2002 and 2003 Final Fours, losing the national title game to Syracuse and freshman Carmelo Anthony in 2003, when Collision had 19 points and 21 rebounds. Aldrich was a freshman on the 2008 national championship team at Kansas. Cook and fellow OSU freshmen Greg Oden and Michael Conley turned pro after losing in the 2007 national championship game against Florida.