The journey to get there is just beginning

The Houston Cougars will vault to #1 in the country on Monday, just six weeks after losing back-to-back road games and being declared dead in the mighty Big 12. Just couldn’t handle the Big 12 grind.

After the autopsy (cause of death: cupcakes) but before the funeral home, a funny thing happened to those Cougars: they adjusted. A couple of home wins and then a late-game win at hostile BYU. And then they put it on repeat: a win at Texas in overtime, down to the wire at Cincinnati, a second-half surge to claim first place over a gritty Iowa State team, and another OT win, this time at Foster Pavilion over Baylor.

Houston is 11-3 in the Big 12, and 4-3 on the road. They now have two five-game win streaks in conference play.

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But now it gets harder. Four games in 12 days for a conference title: two on the road, two at home. Cincinnati has a better record on the road (3-4) than they do at home (2-5). Oklahoma will be gunning to ruin the homecoming for their former coach and legendary players. UCF has picked off wins at home over two ranked teams and has been in seemingly every game since the UH game a month ago. And, of course, Kansas to end the season.

It got even harder on Thursday when Ramon Walker went down in practice with a torn meniscus. But when evaluating and recruiting players, Kelvin Sampson’s staff looks for guys who can handle the hard. Sampson says he seeks players he can lose with, meaning they can handle adversity. Coaches intentionally put players through hell early in their careers, looking for the work ethic needed to overcome the tough stuff. The players must love the game, finding peace of mind in the repetition of practice and drills. Finding value in the infinite number of ways they can help a team win.

This team has consistently found improbable ways to win. In two wins this week over top-12 teams, Houston shot 79.2% at the free-throw line. Who saw that coming? The starting three guards were 35/37 (94.6%) at the line. J’Wan Roberts and Ja’Vier Francis, playing with four fouls, made the only two UH baskets in overtime in Waco, while the tandem played monster defense inside.

The coaching staff pointed to Francis’ continuing improvement, along with that of JoJo Tugler, as they backed off top-10 recruit Derek Queen. Roberts, for his part, continues to be a road warrior. He’s averaging 12.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in eight road games, all above his season averages.

And then there’s Jamal Shead. Kellen Sampson said this week he’s the highest basketball IQ guy they’ve ever had. In the Baylor game, Shead stood near the UH bench during a free throw, explaining what he’s seen to Kelvin Sampson and then working through strategy together.

There’s a level of trust in Jamal that no player has ever earned, and that’s because no player in the Sampson era has had more of an intimate knowledge of what the staff wants to do. This team’s identity is Shead’s identity, and it’s obviously Shead’s team.

L.J., J’Wan, and Jamal enjoying a light moment after the game // © 2024 by GoCoogs

With four games left, the script for this team and their season is still largely unwritten. They’ve won four of the last five road games, all seven home games, and go into the penultimate week of the season still in control of every preseason goal. On Monday, the team will ascend to #1, which will hardly cause a cursory glance from those inside the program. The novelty of #1 wore off last season, and after what feels like years at the top of the NCAA NET, it’s not that important.

“I’d like to get to Monday night,” Kelvin Sampson admitted to me in October, a nod to the national championship game’s date. “And I keep trying to figure out how.” Having done around 65 interviews, press conferences, and Zoom calls with the man this season, that single line mesmerizes me. Navigating these final two weeks will play a large part in shaping the journey that could get him there for the first time.

Monday night is the end of the season, but it would become the first line of the Kelvin Sampson legacy. The journey to get there is just beginning.


Stewart J. Guss, Injury Accident Lawyers, is proud to be a corporate sponsor as the Official Personal Injury Law Firm for the University of Houston Athletics.

“As a University of Houston alum, I am honored that the University of Houston Athletics chose our firm to be their official and exclusive personal injury law firm,” says Stewart J. Guss, the firm’s founder.