Progress isn’t linear, and it isn’t easy. But progress is part of Kelvin’s culture. It starts in June during the eight-hour instructional weeks when the coaches can work with them. Then, the team works towards progress again in the fall, then when practice starts, when games begin, and once more when conference season begins. There are metrics and breakthroughs, yet there are few tangible rewards. Until March, that is.
Every Kelvin team is built toward March. This is by design, though it has also been out of necessity. Every year Kelvin has been here, his teams have had to start fresh after losing key players from the previous year.
This year featured a little twist. Four veteran starters were gone from a team that went to the Elite Eight, but UH also had Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark returning. Another twist: freshman Jarace Walker would be penciled in as a starter from day one, while other freshmen would be expected to play. Despite the youth and inexperience, this team was loaded, and it was evident that it could be special.
From the outside, many would think UH fans were crazy for thinking the season was bumpy. They had played their way up to #1 in the AP Poll for good chunks of the season. But it has been full-scale work in progress for those watching daily. There were a lot of bumps and slumps, but ultimately, the team kept winning. Some games were pretty, some were ugly, but almost all went into the win column.
The season was all going to plan; the team was coming together and starting to make their usual late-season surge. They cut the nets down after a regular season title and then won a buzzer-beater at Memphis as the cherry on top.
But in the AAC Tournament, Marcus Sasser slipped and pulled his groin in the first half against Cincinnati in Fort Worth. Sasser did not play the next day, and the Cougars lost. Without him, the team looked completely lost. The struggle continued in the first-round game against Northern Kentucky when Sasser left early while Jamal Shead battled a hyperextended knee.
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Despite getting a #1 seed, the first in almost four decades, the fanbase went into full panic mode. Their hopes, dreams, and the sappy rom-com ending in Houston were slipping away. If only the team could get through Auburn, a week of rest would come, and maybe the fairytale could be saved. Against War Eagle, Houston came out firing and was up five midway through the first half. But Auburn went on a run, and the Cougar deficit was 10 points at halftime.
Was it all gone so fast? Another humiliating end for a #1 seed on the first weekend?
At the half, Kelvin Sampson gently reminded his team who they were and that without an attitude adjustment, this would be the last time they played with Marcus, Reggie, and Jarace. The players responded and put on a full-court blitz. The defensive intensity ramped up, and the offense was crisp. The ball and the players moved with purpose, and they hammered away at that 10-point deficit.
It was vintage Cougar ball as the first four possessions showed: defensive rebound, layup on the other end, a Jarace block, defensive rebound, then UH missed a shot, grabbed the offensive rebound, shot missed, another offensive rebound, and a three-pointer with an assist. A one-shot possession and a blocked shot for Auburn, five points and four rebounds for Houston. Auburn’s 10-point lead was halved.
Houston kept imposing their will and cut it to two by the under-16 timeout.
This season has shown that the comeback wasn’t going to be smooth. It looked like it might get derailed when Sasser picked up his 4th foul inside the 11-minute mark. It got even scarier when Shead picked up his 4th foul with 8:22 to play in the game. A comeback at this point would require someone to step up offensively. It was a big load to put on them without Sasser and Shead making it happen for them.
Fortunately, between the time Sasser and Shead checked out, “T-March” came to life. Mark checked in for Sasser and then took over the game, hitting four-straight jumpers, going 8-8 from the free throw line, and scoring 18 points.
A lot of attention is on Auburn’s horrible 15-26 from the line, but that’s a half-truth. UH physically dominated Auburn in the second half. The Tigers shot 4-24 from the floor and 14-28 at the line, while UH destroyed them on the boards (26-13) and blocked 8 AU shots. Of UH’s 14 misses, the Cougars rebounded eight of them, while Auburn had just six.
Houston was worked 22-10 in the paint in the first half but reversed that in the second half: 18-8 in UH’s favor. The second-half boxscore is beautiful:
Before the season started, this was the team I imagined. This is why they endured the two-hour workouts in June, with March seemingly years away. This is why Kelvin shrugs off mid-season losses, knowing he can use them to sharpen his team for more important games. This is why guys stay after practice for shooting drills. This is why they police themselves for culture violations. This is why the devout man-to-man sherpa started practicing zone in late January. This is why winners go to Houston to play in the mud for Kelvin rather than head to Memphis for the flash and sizzle of Penny.
This is what they mean when they say UH is built for March.