February 11, 2010

Samhan grows into impact player for St. Mary's

Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett didn't always take Gaels senior center Omar Samhan's lofty claims at face value.

At times, Samhan has stretched the truth during his Saint Mary's career. For example, he would say he worked out in the gym for two hours; in reality, he just shot free throws.

This season, Bennett has no reason to question whether Samhan really did "all the Rocky movie stuff" the player says he did over the offseason. Samhan, a 6-foot-11 center from San Ramon, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay area, is averaging more than 30 minutes per game for the first time in his career while leading the West Coast Conference in scoring and rebounding for a 21-3 team.

"Once I started working out the way I said I was, he could tell the difference," Samhan said.

Saint Mary's will need every minute, every point and every rebound out of their All-America candidate Thursday night when the Gaels play at Gonzaga with the WCC lead and a potential NCAA tournament at-large bid on the line.

When Gonzaga lost at San Francisco on Jan. 30, the Bulldogs fell into a tie with Saint Mary's for the WCC lead. A victory at Gonzaga could give Saint Mary's, which is 44th in the RPI and has two RPI top-50 wins, the boost it needs to be at least an at-large selection.

Although Saint Mary's is undefeated on the road this season (8-0), Samhan, who has suffered through five consecutive losses to Gonzaga, acknowledges this will be the toughest trip of the season.

"Ever since they lost to USF, there's been a buzz," Samhan said. "Every day it gets closer and more intense. ... We still have to go up there and take care of business. You're not going to luck into beating them.

"The excitement is nice, but over the years I've learned all the excitement in the world can't help you. Sometimes the excitement can be bad."

If the pressure of the game starts to weigh on Saint Mary's, Bennett can at least count on Samhan to loosen up the team. Samhan can talk trash with the best of them:

In a dispute with a teammate over whose California high school team had been better, Samhan argued it was his at San Ramon Valley since it won a state title. Bennett had to intervene, "reminding" Samhan his team didn't even reach the state championship game.

Samhan bragged to teammates that his grandfather had won a national championship at Oregon. Ahem. Bennett checked the record books and found that Samhan's grandfather played at Oregon State, but at least he did reach the Final Four.

After working out with the Miami Heat's Jermaine O'Neal, Samhan told teammates he scored 20 points on O'Neal. It was closer to 10 points, if that.

West Coast dominance
Since 1999, Gonzaga has claimed 11 of the 17 NCAA tournament bids from the West Coast Conference. Only four teams other than Gonzaga have earned at-large bids from the West Coast Conference in that time.
SeasonAutomatic bidAt-large bids
'07-08San DiegoGonzaga, Saint Mary's
'04-05GonzagaSaint Mary's
'02-03San DiegoGonzaga
"He's not just a college basketball player," said Eric Musselman, the former Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings coach who has mentored Samhan. "He's almost like a cartoon character."

Though Samhan has a tendency to exaggerate, Bennett says he is an intense, driven player.

"He's always been very respectful and coachable," Bennett said. "The way he'd talk about his high school coach and high school program, I knew he was going to be loyal to the program and loyal to his coach. He didn't want to let you down."

Samhan didn't mind asking for advice, either, even if his questions elicited skeptical reactions.

From the time he was in high school, he took every possible opportunity to ask NBA types what it takes to make it to the league. When they stopped by Saint Mary's to scout former teammates Daniel Kickert, Patty Mills or Diamon Simpson, Samhan made sure he got some feedback, too - even when he was a freshman topping 300 pounds.

"They looked at me like, 'Who's this fat kid?' " Samhan said. "[They said,] 'You won't even get a lot of playing time in college at the weight you're at. You won't be a good college player at your weight.' "

Bennett agreed and redshirted Samhan as a true freshman. As a redshirt freshman, Samhan struggled to keep up with the speed of the game because of his weight. In the final minutes of games, Samhan used to dread the opponents' frontcourt players handling the ball.

"You're hoping he doesn't catch the ball, you're so tired," Samhan said. "If he makes a post move, I might fall down.

"There were times in my career when I was fouling just to get to the media timeout."

But heeding the advice of the NBA players, coaches, scouts and front-office personnel, Samhan has been relentless in improving his conditioning. He arrived at Saint Mary's weighing more than 300 pounds and ran a mile in 6 minutes, 45 seconds.

He started a rigorous conditioning program during the offseasons, which included pushing tires and running up and down hills. He also watched his diet meticulously.

When Samhan started running sub-6-minute miles before his junior season, Bennett was stunned. He says Samhan's mile time now is close to the 5:30 range and his weight is down to 254 pounds.

Those changes mean Samhan is staying in games longer. He's more effective in the final minutes, especially on the defensive end. In nine WCC games, he's averaging 34.3 minutes, a high number for a big man. In addition to topping 20 points and 10 rebounds in each of his past two games, he had 15 combined blocks against Santa Clara and San Francisco.

He has improved to the point where Musselman considers him a legitimate NBA prospect.

"For all of his fun-loving, quirky things, the bottom line is he's changed his body," said Musselman, who now works as an analyst for NBA, NBA Developmental League and West Coast Conference games. "I think he plays up all that [personality] stuff. No one should lose sight of the fact that this guy is working as hard as anybody."

Now that Samhan is in the condition needed to play a game from beginning to end, Saint Mary's can count on him to be a team leader. The Gaels didn't need him to be the primary scorer the past two seasons with Mills and Simpson. With that duo gone and three new starters in the lineup this season, Samhan has moved from complementary player to go-to guy and team leader.

"He might be the best when he's 'the guy' offensively," Bennett said. "He is more relaxed when he knows it's on his shoulders. Not everyone is that way."

But Samhan still needs help. In the Gaels' first game this season against Gonzaga, Samhan had 31 points and 12 rebounds in 38 minutes. But the Gaels struggled defensively as the Bulldogs won 89-82, dropping Saint Mary's to 3-27 against Gonzaga since 1999.

"Opponents like Gonzaga get you out of [a] routine," Samhan said. "The key is going to be for us to keep the ball and the game at our pace and not try to outrun them because they have so many athletes."

At least now Saint Mary's has a center who can keep up.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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