With a hard-fought but comfortable win over Syracuse in the Sweet 16, the Houston Cougar basketball program took another step in its steady rise under Kelvin Sampson.
It’s been 35 years since Cougar fans could trust any head coach like they do Sampson. When he came to Houston, Sampson had a plan, he articulated it, got others to buy in, and recruited to it. The facilities, the upgrades for players academically, in travel, and in the training table were his demands. Sampson said that’s what he needed to build a championship program. He’s rewarded fans with a 110-23 record over the last four years.
And now, Sampson has UH on the cusp of the Final Four for the first time in 37 years. He did it by building a defense-first, team-oriented culture that routinely bullies their opponents. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is a believer – after the game, he was effusive in praise of Houston’s D.
“I thought that Houston was tremendous defensively…their defense was just too much for us,” Boeheim said. “I just give 90 percent of the credit to their defense. They’re really a good defensive team. Their defense was really terrific. It’s the best defense that we’ve seen this year. And they deserved to win.”
Houston held Syracuse to just 14 made baskets – 13 below their season average. The 13 made shots were the second-lowest total for Syracuse in (at least) the last 26 years. After the game, Kelvin Sampson said his team spent the week preparing to defend Syracuse – not on the Orange’s vaunted zone defense like the media focused on.
“Obviously everybody works versus the zone, but I thought we spent more time defensively,” Sampson admitted. “Taking away the 3-point line, that’s not easy to do. You say go out there and stop somebody. You’ve got to have clear responsibilities and great communication.”
Sampson explained that the team “talked all week about five people guarding the ball. It’s not one person or two people. It’s five. Five people had to be in the right spot. And I thought for the most part we were.”
As he has all year, Sampson pointed to the culture that has been engrained for the last eight years. “We have a culture and identity we try to play to. I thought that’s what we did. Our kids played like we played all year long.”
The key to UH’s dominating defense was stopping Buddy Boeheim, nicknamed Buddy Buckets for making a ton of shots every game. Buddy had made 8+ shots in seven of his last 9 games.
Then came DeJon Jarreau.
Jarreau completely shut Boeheim down. He made Buddy uncomfortable for every second he was on the floor, limiting him to just 3/13 shooting.
DeJon shadowed Boeheim so hard, he was likely in Buddy’s dreams Saturday night. He turned Buddy Buckets into Buddy Buckled Down.
“DeJon Jarreau, I thought, was tremendous,” Kelvin said. “He’s a tough kid. Smart, too. Very high basketball IQ. Can’t be a great defender if you’re not smart.”
“He’s a really good defender,” Jim Boeheim echoed. “(Jarreau) just stayed with him every place he went. He did a great job.
“Jarreau is a really good defensive player.”
Jarreau also had eight rebounds and eight assists to go along with nine points. To this point in the NCAA Tournament, he is easily UH’s MVP and should win the Regional’s Most Outstanding Player. It would be UH’s 4th Regional MOP – Jarreau would join Rob Williams (1982) and Akeem (1983, 1984) as the only Cougars to win it.
After the game, Kelvin gave assistant coach Kellen Sampson much of the credit for the Syracuse game plan.
“Really proud of our kids’ attention to detail this week in practice,” he said. “Kellen had the scouting report. He did a great job of breaking down their offense and personnel. We were really locked into the scouting report and our kids did a great job executing.”
The Syracuse win is just another notch for the Cougar program. UH has been building to this point for years: from winning the first NCAA game in 34 years (2018), to getting to the Sweet 16 in 2019, and being primed for another deep run in 2020 before the COVID shutdown. This year, the Cougars have taken another step and are now just 40 minutes from the program’s sixth Final Four.
And they’ve done it without the AAC Preseason Player of the Year. They’ve done it with great teamwork, defensive execution, and tremendous efficiency. And as a point of pride, they’ve done it with players that fans, alums, and the City of Houston can be proud of.
“We have high-character kids,” Kelvin Sampson beamed. “I have no discipline problems. My best player, my best defender tonight, DeJon Jarreau, has already graduated college. I have two other seniors graduating in May. We have a first-class, first-rate basketball program with great kids.