Sure, it’s about culture. But every winner has “culture.” The Houston basketball renaissance is more than that one word. There’s more to the story.
It’s about the process. The vision. The mentality. The building blocks. The rotating parts. The precision in which it comes together, just in time for the Madness.
Every year under Kelvin Sampson, the UH program has taken another step closer to the ultimate prize:
– make the NIT,
– host an NIT game,
– reach the tournament and win a game,
– reach the Sweet 16,
– reach the Final Four.
With a depleted roster that most thought had no chance to make a run, they are again in the Sweet 16. Nine wins, with 16 different starters, in the last four Tournaments. The 2021-22 team has taken a step up the ladder by making the Sweet 16. The Cougars have once again proven themselves as one of the top programs in the country.
And they have done it in the most modern of ways. First, there’s the homegrown talent – Galen Robinson and the Fabian White. Then, there’s top-notch talent from around the state, like Marcus Sasser and Armoni Brooks. The five-star that went away but needed a fresh start, such as Quentin Grimes. JUCO guys ready to step in, like Rob Gray and Corey Davis. Guys losing their coach and looking for something new, like Kyler Edwards. And the transfers that come to Houston and flip their entire careers: Josh Carlton, Taze Moore, DeJon Jarreau, and Justin Gorham.
This program isn’t just one team or one great recruiting class. It is a changing, evolving group of guys discovering themselves each year. New faces, new teammates, and new guys to step up and fill the shoes of those who came before them. This program is a miracle heave away from four-straight Sweet 16 appearances.
Each of these teams has been different from an offensive standpoint. UH has been carried by a go-to guy, they’ve bombed away from three, had a drive and dish guy, and since December 23rd, have reinvented themselves as an inside-out team. However, the one constant is Kelvin Sampson’s DNA: defense, rebounding, and suffocating pressure.
Against Illinois, Houston refused to let the 7’0″ center Kofi Cockburn beat them. Kelvin Sampson said in the postgame that Cockburn’s point total was not what they focused on in scouting.
“I think the relevant thing is not how many points he had, but how many shots he got,” Sampson stated. “He had 11 shot attempts. You know, that’s great defense.”
Eleven shots in 38 minutes. Kofi had only played 38 minutes once this year and only been held under 11 shots three times. In the Illini’s last 31 games, Cockburn had not had a game where he played 30+ minutes and took fewer than 12 shots. The Cougars stifled him as soon as he made it inside the three-point arc. Trip after trip down the floor, the UH defense frustrated him.
The win over Illinois is a microcosm of this program. Today, the team is without 5 key players from last year’s Final Four run. After Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark were ruled out for the season, no one could imagine how good this team would turn out to be.
The national pundits struggle to define this team. They cannot put their hands on what UH is offensively, hard as they try. They say UH is not a great shooting team but can still score from the outside. Others claim UH is not an inside threat but can beat you in the post. Maybe that’s the real definition of the UH offense: indescribable. This team does not do anything special offensively but can hurt you from every angle at any time.
Eventually, the pundits figure out what truly sets these Cougars apart. UH makes everything difficult for the opponent. It is complete warfare. It’s exasperating defense, the hands in the passing lanes, encircling the basket, collapsing on the ball-handler, gutting you with another offensive rebound, and crushing you with pressure for 40 minutes.
These Cougars are determined to step on your face, break your nose, then steal your soul.