It could be ladder night. Which means cutting down the nets. Which means winning conference titles. A win tonight would be Houston’s 10th regular-season conference title in school history.
And perhaps no conference title would be as sweet as this season’s. Facing enormous obstacles after losing Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark on the same night, Kelvin Sampson and his staff remade this team on the fly in late December. In the last 59 days, the Cougars have gone 13-2 in the American and are now on the cusp of winning it.
But don’t say that to Kelvin Sampson, as he noted after Sunday’s win over SMU:
In 2014, University of Oklahoma Athletic Director Joe Castiglione sent Kelvin Sampson a big FedEx package. In it was a ladder and a note.
Congratulations! I hope you’ll need to use this a lot during your journey as a Houston Cougar. – Joe
Since that day, Sampson has kept the ladder in his office, a symbolic reminder to himself, his players, and recruits that visit him: basketball is a journey to the top of the ladder, and only the best get to the top. Only the best get to cut down the nets.
Almost three years ago, on March 8, 2019, UH beat SMU, 90-79, for its first regular-season conference title since 1992. The UH players, coaches, and staff climbed the ladder to get their piece of that net. Now, Sampson has created a habit of his teams reaching their destination.
“Winning is a destination…but when it happens three or more times, it becomes a habit,” Kelvin said Monday.
Tonight would be the fifth net cutting in Sampson’s UH tenure: the 2019 regular-season title, the championship in 2020, the conference tournament in 2021, and the Midwest Regional title last April.
Despite the recent success, Sampson still focuses on each season’s journey. He keeps Castiglione’s note attached to the ladder.
“We always talked about how symbolic the ladder was when you cut the nets down,” Sampson said.
Before last March, UH had never won a regular-season or conference tournament title in three-straight seasons. But with one more victory this week, the Cougars will win their fourth conference title in four years.
A regular-season conference championship in 2022 would be the most improbable in school history, considering the injuries and players that left following 2021. But it’s just another step up the ladder for these Coogs.
Kelvin Sampson will be the first to tell you that there are more steps still to take.