MORAGA, Calif. (AP) — Omar Samhan walked into freshman orientation at Saint Mary’s in 2005 as an overweight teenager who was unwanted by almost every other school and boldly proclaimed that he would play in the NBA one day.
“Everybody else in that room laughed,” Samhan said. “Nobody thought I was serious.”
Samhan got a similar reaction earlier this month when he predicted his Gaels would win the national championship.
After leading the tournament in scoring and one-liners the first weekend to help Saint Mary’s make it to the regional semifinal for the first time in more than 50 years, it might be time to stop doubting Samhan.
The transformation from the pudgy freshman who needed to sit out his first year, and purposely committed fouls at times the following season just to get a break to catch his breath, to the big man dominating the NCAA tournament with old-school post moves and a soft touch is a simple case of hard work.
From the 6 a.m. workouts, to the midnight trips to the gym to all the work in the weight room and on the court in between, Samhan has dropped about 60 pounds since arriving at college and added so much to his game.
It all stems from a three-word mantra he estimates he has heard “at least three million” times from head coach Randy Bennett or associate coach Kyle Smith: “Good or great.”
“It’s really something that powered me and made me a better player,” Samhan said. “There are very few people who are willing to work hard enough to be good. The people who are willing to do what it takes to change that from good to great is such a small number. I want to be one of those.”
Samhan is doing his best to accomplish that goal. He was one of two Division I players to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds a game this season and became the first player to lead the West Coast Conference in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots since Bill Cartwright did it for San Francisco in 1978.
“You can coach him,” Bennett said. “He lets you coach him. Not all guys let that happen, they’re pouty or don’t handle it right. But he wants to be coached, he wants to be better.”
Samhan credits long hours in the gym with Smith for the post play that drew comparisons to players like Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon after he scored 61 points and shot 75 percent in the wins over Richmond and Villanova that sent the 10th-seeded Gaels (28-5) to a regional semifinal matchup with Baylor (27-7) on Friday night in Houston.
Saint Mary’s had won only one tournament game in its history before this year, going to the regional final of a 23-team tournament in 1959.
“These kids today can jump 40 inches in the air but none of them know what it takes to have good footwork, which is just to grind every day doing the same drills over and over,” Samhan said. “Do the same up and under millions of times. Guys don’t want to do that.”
One of the biggest lessons Samhan has learned is patience on the court. As a freshman when he struggled to stay on the court because of conditioning, he shot almost every time he got the ball in the post because he didn’t know how many opportunities he would get.
He improved at that each year, with the biggest change coming this season. He is playing with his most skilled offensive lineup that features four long-range shooters whose unselfish play has given Samhan the opportunity to average 21.5 points per game.
“It’s been a constant battle with him that less is more,” Smith said. “I tell him we’ll be better the less you try to score. That’s what happened this year. He’s getting his points without forcing it. That’s part of his maturity.”
Samhan is also maturing in his demeanor on the court after he earned a bad reputation after cursing at Gonzaga coach Mark Few on national television his freshman year.
Bennett said it’s a difficult balance allowing Samhan’s emotions to fuel his play and making sure he doesn’t cross the line into bad sportsmanship. A technical foul in the WCC final for a bumping incident with Gonzaga’s Robert Sacre was all right with his coach, but even Samhan acknowledges he went too far at times earlier in his career.
Samhan reserves most of his venom for Gonzaga, earning him the title of “the most hated man in Spokane.”
He said he can never back down to the Bulldogs, who have ruled the West Coast Conference for more than a decade. Samhan was particularly upset when he lost the player of the year voting to Gonzaga’s Matt Bouldin despite his gaudy stats.
“It didn’t make any sense,” Samhan said. “Now Matt Bouldin’s career is over. He had an all right run. We’re still playing. We won the WCC championship and I’m averaging 30 in the NCAA tournament. I’m not worried about it. I was just upset it didn’t go to the best player.”
Samhan wasn’t always this open to the media, spouting off canned cliches until he took a journalism class his sophomore season and realized how boring those were.
Now he’s earned the nickname Cassius Clay, to go with his longtime moniker of “Beast,” for his bold proclamations both on and off the court.
There were a few examples from last weekend. He told Villanova’s Corey Fisher he wasn’t allowed to talk on the court until he scored more points, even drawing a few chuckles from Fisher’s Wildcats teammates.
He tried to chest bump a bewildered Mouphtaou Yarou of Villanova during pregame warmups. And then he gave a backhanded compliment to Corey Stokes in the closing minutes.
“You weren’t even on the scouting report,” Samhan said he told Stokes. “You got 12 points man, congratulations. You impressed me. You really impressed me. Why are you so quiet? I said you impressed me. Its’ a compliment. You should say something. I have 30. Am I impressing you?”
Samhan said that drew a smirk from Stokes.
But even Samhan can be stunned into near silence at times. He was in awe when he saw former Georgetown coach John Thompson calling last weekend’s games on radio.
He finally approached Thompson before the game against Villanova and introduced himself. He then thanked Thompson again after the game and Thompson replied that he loved Samhan.
“I said, ‘I love you too.’ I didn’t know what to say,” he said. “That was probably the coolest thing that happened the whole weekend.”