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Culture / Sporting Life

Alvin Kamara’s UH Love and Duke’s Stumble Show Just How Astounding Houston’s 26-1 Record Really Is

Final Four Comparisons, Pro Stars Watching and the Coogs Just Keep Rolling, Avoiding Upset Season With Kelvin Sampson Pointing the Way

BY // 02.24.19

DeJon Jarreau hits a 3-pointer right in front of Alvin Kamara and starts barking at the New Orleans Saints’ all-pro running back. And a delighted Kamara starts barking right back. It’s all love between two New Orleans athletes in the heart of Houston.

The 23-year Kamara is one of the most exciting young players in the NFL, a game changer who is already a millionaire. The 21-year-old Jarreau is still a relatively unknown college basketball player just starting to come into his own for a Top 10 University of Houston team.

But these two are legitimate friends, brought together by a city that both gives and takes away so much.

“I met him as soon as he got drafted by the Saints,” Jarreau says when I ask about the Kamara connection. “And from there, we just gained a relationship, and just kind of bonded. And he’s just taken me under his wing and mentored me. Because he took the same route I took.

“Going to a school, transferring to a Juco and then coming back and having success at another college. We just kind of have like similar stories. So we just kind of bonded and we just like close friends now.”

Close enough that Kamara travels to Houston specifically to watch Jarreau play, sitting in a prime front row seat in the new $60 million Fertitta Center on Saturday. And why not? One of the NFL’s biggest young stars this week. ESPN College Gameday next week.

This is how it goes for the University of Houston basketball team. When you’re 26-1, almost anything good can happen. And often seemingly does.

It’s just another day in college basketball paradise.

On this Saturday it’s a 71-59 brushback of a good University of South Florida team, another look at how Kelvin Sampson’s team somehow continues to grow even as it racks up wins at a rate no other team in America can quite match. In a week in which No. 1 Duke, No. 5 Tennessee and No. 6 Nevada (the non Power 5 school UH’s profile is most compared to this season) all lose, Sampson’s Houston team rolls on.

The win over USF is both emphatic and somewhat uneven, but that might make it even more impressive in some respects. For at the time of the season when upsets are ripe, UH refuses to buckle even when it’s not at its best.

These Cougars don’t wobble. They just win. They’re an anomaly even among the other elite teams in the country this season.

“These guys, they watch TV,” Sampson says. “If Duke loses, they don’t need me to tell em. Or what other teams are doing. I think we have a great ability to compartmentalize what we do. We watch film and we practice.

“And we’ve been doing this since October.”

Final Four Visions

Houston’s been doing it well enough to boast the best winning percentage in America (an absurd .963 now). It’s enough to make even their opponents marvel at the seemingly limitless possibilities of their future even as Sampson continues to harp on the day by day.

“I would say this,” South Florida coach Brian Gregory says. “Can they make it to the Final Four? No question about it. This is a Final Four caliber team.”

Gregory would know. He was an assistant coach at Michigan State when Tom Izzo’s team made three Final Fours in five years and won the 2000 national title. He was also a head coach in the ACC. He knows what Final Four teams look like.

“I hope the people of Houston aren’t surprised,” Gregory says. “Because (Sampson) did it at Washington State. He did it at Oklahoma. He did it at Indiana. Now, he’s doing it here.

“He’s just following the same blueprint. I mean he’s got a couple of guards on the bench coaching with him that are very similar to the two guards he has playing for him right now. And they led Oklahoma to the Final Four.”

Those two Oklahoma guards are UH assistant coach Quannas White and director of player development Hollis Price. White and Price led Oklahoma to the 2002 Final Four as a No. 2 seed. Now, Corey Davis Jr. and Galen Robinson Jr. stand on the doorstep of having a chance to do the same thing in Houston.

UH is four wins away from a 30-1 regular season, seven wins away (including the three it would take to win the American Athletic Conference Tournament title) from all but guaranteeing itself a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now, winning many of those seven games will not be easy — and they’ll be prime chances for stumbles along the way.

But just getting to this point would have been considered almost unfathomable just a few short months ago.

And don’t even get Sampson started on how people would have reacted if he’d predicted this was coming five years ago. You think Khloe Kardashian looks at Tristan Thompson funny. That’s nothing compared to the stares Sampson would have received.

“No one has a perspective on this unless you were here five years ago,” Sampson says. “You don’t understand. It’s amazing how many people have picked up on this in the last year or two. Look at what we’re doing.

“But to really, really, really, really understand what this program has done, you would have had to have been here in 2014. And saw where we started. I’m more proud of that than the record.”

UH’s Rise From the Dead

UH basketball couldn’t have been less relevant if it was on Pluto when Kelvin Sampson first arrived on campus. Horrible facilities. No fans. Many would have said no hope.

Now, NBA (Chris Paul) and NFL stars come to games at the Fertitta Center. Now, ESPN’s showcase college basketball show is on the way. Now, a DeJon Jarreau — a former starter as a freshman at UMass — pops off the Houston bench and puts up 17 points and four assists in 21 minutes. With Alvin Kamara cheering him on.

Now, Corey Davis sets the tone in a game when he misses 9 of his 13 shots, somehow still making four of the biggest threes of the game. Now, South Florida spends three days preparing to stop Breaon Brady inside after he tormented them in an earlier Cougars road win — and UH simply shrugs and hits them with Fabian White Jr., Nate Hinton and Brison Gresham instead.

It’s just another day in college basketball paradise. One of the most unlikely college basketball paradises of all.

University of Houston Cougar
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson has his team primed to do damage. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)

Like Gregory, Kellen Sampson (the coach’s son and UH assistant who’s soon to be a rising star in the coaching ranks) has seen this type of thing before from his dad’s teams. Well, maybe not the 26-1. But the guards and the steely look of a March contender.

“They share some qualities,” Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity of the 2002 Oklahoma guards he now coaches with and the 2019 Houston guards he helps coach. “The biggest thing is all of them are in sync with Coach. That’s the most unifying quality. All of them have a really, really clear idea of what he wants.

“Coach being a former point guard himself in college, he demands a lot out of those guards. And the more organized and on the same page they are, the better we are.”

Kellen Sampson is leaning against a wall outside the Houston locker room as he talks. Alvin Kamara is gone by now. And another sellout crowd at the Fertitta Center’s on the way home. It’s mostly just the players and the coaches now.

Maybe, this is the real college basketball paradise. A team together, enjoying a moment, before getting back to work.

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