Scoggins: Sampson III finishing an underwhelming four years

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 1, 2012 - 6:40 AM

Ralph Sampson III's time with the Gophers is emblematic of Tubby Smith's tenure. It began with high hopes, but one expected so much more by now.

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Minnesota's Ralph Sampson III

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It was a simple yes or no question: Are you satisfied with your career? Ralph Sampson III paused for 5 seconds.

"Mixed emotions about that one," he said. "You always wish you could have done more, wanted to do more, wish everything was higher, wish everything was through the roof. But you're pleased about what you've done and what you've accomplished over the years."

Which is what, exactly? It wasn't a success, and it wasn't a blanket failure. It was just underwhelming.

That's the book on Sampson, the Gophers 6-11 senior center, and barring a dramatic finish to this season, it will become his legacy, too.

Sampson scored his 1,000th career point Tuesday in a loss at Wisconsin. He is only the fifth player in program history to reach 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 150 blocks. He joined Kevin McHale, Randy Breuer, Mychal Thompson and Michael Bauer in that group.

Yet despite starting 113 games, Sampson's overall impact on the program has been minimal, to the point that he gradually was becoming mostly a bystander until his re-emergence against Michigan State last week.

The gushing over Sampson's general competence and willingness to compete in a critical game that night underscored just how far the bar has been lowered. Shouldn't that kind of effort and emotional engagement from the team's lone healthy senior serve as a standard expectation?

If anything, Sampson's performance against the sixth-ranked Spartans should elevate fan frustration because it again demonstrated the impact he can make when he is completely engaged. He was assertive and forceful in the post. He played with an edge, showed some confidence, didn't shy away from contact.

It was a solid effort that left you wondering, where has this been? Sampson responded with four points on 1-for-11 shooting and three rebounds in a loss to Indiana on Sunday. He responded to that letdown by collecting eight points, seven rebounds and five blocks against Wisconsin.

That's his college career in a nutshell.

"I just want people to remember me by the way I conducted myself, the way I carried myself, what kind of character I [have]," Sampson said when asked about his legacy. "I want people to remember me by not necessarily what I've done and what I've brought but what I've created while I was here."

Sampson's career is emblematic of Tubby Smith's tenure in Dinkytown. It began with high hopes, but one expected so much more by now. You don't see any real emotion or energy in the player or program most of the time. You keep waiting for that spark that leads to sustained success, but it never comes.

Asked if he's enjoyed his four years in a Gophers uniform, Sampson said, "It's been a roller coaster ride. But at the end of the day I look back and say, yes I enjoyed my four years here."

Sampson's inconsistency and disappearances covered up the flashes of promise that suggested he was on the verge of becoming the player everyone envisioned when he arrived on campus with a famous name and pedigree. No one realistically expected him to achieve the same level of success as his father, Ralph Sampson Jr., one of the all-time greats in college basketball. But Sampson's talent has never really been the main issue.

His insistence on hanging around the perimeter is frustrating because he has good size and length and can use either hand to score. He has a nice shooting touch from the outside as well, but this Gophers team craved a low-post presence in the absence of injured forward Trevor Mbakwe.

Sampson has enough talent to be a difference-maker on a team with very few of them when he wants, but that's the crux of any discussion involving him. He enrages fans with his unemotional demeanor and body language that suggests only a half-hearted interest.

That might be unfair or even inaccurate, but we often equate how much an athlete cares by how he carries himself. Sampson rarely projects anything but a solemn expression and air of indifference.

Sampson said he routinely hears questions and complaints about his demeanor, which presumably fueled this tweet from him earlier this season: "Last time I checked, being emotional on the court doesn't mean you are a better player."

That's true, of course. But there's a difference between being emotional and showing some competitive fight. We saw the latter from Sampson against Michigan State last week and flashes of it again against Wisconsin.

Too bad he's not like that all the time.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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