Culture / Sporting Life

Blatant ESPN Bracket Disrespect Can’t Stop Houston and a Masterful DeJon Jarreau — Cade Cunningham is Not the Only College Basketball Star Worth Fawning Over

Veteran Coach Calls Houston the Equal of Gonzaga and Baylor After Jarreau's Historic Triple Double

BY // 03.13.21

FORT WORTH — If you see them up close, if you have to design a plan to try to stop them, there is no doubt. Then, the University of Houston basketball team is as sure a thing as an Oprah interview. Or a TV series with a baby Yoda. Just ask Tulane coach Ron Hunter.

Hunter’s had the misfortunate of having to play against No. 7 Houston three times this season. For a competitive college basketball coach, that may be a worse fate than enduring three enemas.

“I’ve seen really good teams and I know teams that know how to win in the (NCAA) Tournament,” Hunter says. “And they’ve got the makeup of a team that can really win in the tournament. And why I say that is regardless of what you do, they can defeat it. And that’s what (UH point guard DeJon) Jarreau, what he did today, is probably their next step.

“Houston gets in trouble when they have these big lulls in their offense. And when he can play like that man. . . I thought Jarreau if he can keep having a tournament like this right now — whether it’s Baylor, Gonzaga, whoever it might be, they will really struggle with this Houston team.”

While Hunter and anyone else in Fort Worth’s gleaming, still new looking showcase arena really paying attention can see the now 22-3 Cougars showing a new level with Jarreau triple doubling, ESPN’s most influential national voices are largely missing the show. Just hours after Houston’s 77-52 second half demolition of Tulane Friday night, the sports agenda setters’ resident bracketologist Joe Lunardi dropped Kelvin Sampson’s team from the No. 2 seed line to the No. 3 seed line in his NCAA Tournament projections.

Yes, Oklahoma State beat Baylor and the Cowboys have Arlington’s own Cade Cunningham, the type of NBA ready star that ESPN loves to drool over. But the idea that Houston did anything to let Oklahoma State vault right past them in the seedings is ridiculous. And the disrespect does not stop there.

Yahoo Sports has already declared Houston one of the five teams most likely to be upset early in the NCAA Tournament. Before even seeing the actual bracket.

Has anyone outside the Bayou City actually watched these Cougars of DeJon Jarreau, Quentin Grimes, Marcus Sasser and Justin Gorham?

No wonder why UH’s basketball lifer of a coach sounds a tad annoyed when the subject of national respect comes up in his postgame press conference.

“As far as national love, it’s about time,” Sampson says. “Most of the people who do our games (on TV) spend more time talking about other teams and how great other conferences are — so I guess any level we get is a plus.”

ESPN College GameDay cheerleaders
ESPN College GameDay came to Houston’s campus last season. But it’s not giving a Top 10 22-3 team much love in its bracket projections now. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Before Jarreau and Co. can go about trying to show just how well an American Athletic Conference schedule prepared them for the big dance, they’ll try to win the conference tournament. And maybe cut down some nets in Fort Worth. Houston’s into the semifinals to play a dangerous Memphis team that is essentially playing for its NCAA Tournament life less than a week after it came within a epic Tramon Mark buzzer beater of a signature win.

There is plenty of debate over whether waging these conference tournaments is worth the COVID exposure risk right on the doorstep of the tournament that everyone truly cares about. Especially after national powers Duke, Virginia and Kansas all had to drop out of their conference tournaments and forfeit games because of positive tests. Sampson admits that former coaches have texted him wondering why they’re playing and not just going right to the NCAA Tournament.

Still, if you put a game in front of this University of Houston team, Sampson’s guys are going to try and win it. With everything they have. Then, maybe even Kelvin Sampson will start breaking into a mini dance in the locker room, throwing his arms into the air like he really does care. (That is one thing ESPN did delight in showing).

Jarreau knows he only has so many of these games left in a Houston uniform. Only so many of these moments.

On this night, Jarreau shows off all his skills, pulling off college basketball’s version of an EGOT award. Coming into this postseason, only 17 different players in all of college basketball (and more than 320 teams in Division I) have put up a triple double this season. Jarreau becomes the 18th with a 15 point, 10 assist, 10 rebound line. He’s the first to ever do it the history of the AAC Tournament.

This is not the NBA where guys like James Harden and Luka Doncic can seemingly almost put up a triple double every other night. College basketball games are shorter (only 40 minutes), more physical and largely played at a decidedly slower pace. Getting a triple double in a college basketball game is a monumental feat.

The University of Houston has not had one since Bo Outlaw put one up in 1993. The 65-year-old Sampson cannot recall ever having a college player get a triple double for him in his 40-plus-year coaching career, one that’s been graced by plenty of future NBA standouts.

“If I only have one — if it was my first one — I’m really glad it was DeJon,” Sampson says.

The once wild guard who used to drive Sampson absolutely crazy as a sophomore is now the most indispensable player on a Final Four worthy team. Sampson’s Coach on the Floor.

DeJon Jarreau, Mr. Triple Double

In Houston’s first game of the 2020-21 postseason, Jarreau refuses to let the Cougars drop into any doldrums. With UH’s offense sputtering a little, with Dickies Arena looming even larger and less shooter friendly with only a few thousand fans scattered around and plenty of extra bubble space around the court, Jarreau just keeps getting Houston’s best shooters the ball right where they need it.

Time and time again.

This is next level Basketball PhD type stuff. DeJon Jarreau sounds more than a little like Texans quarterback (for now) Deshaun Watson breaking down a complex passing tree after a game.

Jarreau almost wills the rest of the Cougars to catch up to him. And eventually, they do. Quentin Grimes (15 points) and Marcus Sasser (14 points) start hitting shots, going a combined 8 for 17 from 3-point land. With Jarreau showing the way, Houston racks up 21 assists on its 27 baskets.

Even in a game in which Tulane is at its ugly, muck-making best, DeJon Jarreau finds the beauty.

“He played like an All-American tonight,” Hunter says of Jarreau.

Jarreau always could pass with a real flair. His alley-oops to his New Orleans running buddy Brison Gresham is one of the main ways he first introduced himself to University of Houston fans. But now, Jarreau is orchestrating an entire offense, an entire Final Four scheming team really.

Marcus Sasser, DeJon Jarreau and Quentin Grimes relax and enjoy their teammates play late in the blowout of Tulane.
Marcus Sasser, DeJon Jarreau and Quentin Grimes play (and celebrate) seamlessly together. (Courtesy UH Athletics)

He still has the crazy athleticism that allows him to seemingly twist his body like a slinky with a super spring, but now Jarreau is also the ultimate thinking man’s point guard. He watches where on the floor his teammates shoot well in practice and stores that information for future use.

“Just a lot of different drills we do,” Jarreau says when I ask how he’s built the sense of exactly where he needs to get guys like Grimes and Sasser the basketball. “Just five on five work. Whenever I pass it to them, I’ll notice they hit more here. They’ll miss here. Learning where they need the ball before they shoot.”

That’s next level Basketball PhD type stuff. Jarreau sounds more than a little like Texans quarterback (for now) Deshaun Watson breaking down a complex passing tree and the route scheme after a game. DeJon Jarreau is not going to be a high NBA Draft pick. He might not even get drafted. And the only way he’ll ever get anything even approximating Cade Cunningham type ESPN love is if he pushes Houston right into that Final Four.

But Jarreau is going to make a professional basketball team very happy it pays him someday soon. Whether it’s on this continent — or another. Sampson is already saying that he thinks DeJon Jarreau would make a great coach one day, too.

First, he’ll try to live out his college basketball dreams, one year after having them deferred by COVID. These Cougars have been playing like they’re on a mission almost all season, rising to every challenge. Now, the real mission has finally actually started. Jarreau is passing the ball like he’s a pitcher experimenting with spin angles.

Everything is precise. Everything is measured. Everything is targeted. And God help you if Jarreau sets up a wide open shot for you and you do not take it.

“The only time I see DeJon raise his voice at his teammates is when they don’t shoot a ball when he thought they were open,” Sampson says.

“When I pass the ball and I think it’s a good shot, I’m even yelling, ‘Shoot!’ ” Jarreau laughs. “So I think that gives them confidence.”

Or a sense of urgency.

Coogs Go Marching On

This young, limited 10-13 Tulane team might be a mere appetizer, but UH will keep marching on. Whenever the Cougars’ AAC Tournament ends, they’ll fly right to Indianapolis for the one city NCAA Tournament. There is not a lot of time to marvel over any one game. Even a triple double near masterpiece.

But how Jarreau is passing — how he his teammates passing — and how Sasser seems to rediscover his shot in his  beloved North Texas (Sasser grew up in Red Oak) could carry plenty of lasting benefits. ESPN’s most prominent voices may be dropping the Cougars in their brackets to promote the name brand schools they love, but a special team is a special team. No matter where you seed them or how you talk about them on national TV.

“As far as national love, it’s about time.” — UH coach Kelvin Sampson

Ron Hunter, who knows a thing or two about March Madness (see the stool shot), would tell those marquee, chosen one programs that they don’t want to face this Houston team. Not in March. Not with DeJon Jarreau playing at this level.

“Houston is, in my opinion, one of the top five teams in the country,” Hunter says. “I think it’s a Final Four team.”

It’s also a team that is falling from a No. 2 to a No. 3 in those all-important brackets according to ESPN. It’s up to DeJon Jarreau and Co. to make everyone see. One March win at a time.

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