Culture / Sporting Life

UH’s Emergency Coach Wants to Help Kelvin Sampson Win a National Title — How Quannas White, Tramon Mark and a Quick Timeout Raised Houston’s Ceiling

COVID Issues, Star Guard Injuries Cannot Derail Top 10 Cougars

BY // 12.06.20

The father of the program is in his house. Or steaming in his yard — depending on how things happen to be going for the University of Houston basketball team at that moment. The team’s most natural scorer and its best 3-point shooter are both in walking boots. No one can help Quannas White or the rest of the Cougars in this moment.

Sure, Kelvin Sampson, missing his first game in a coaching life that started as a lowly graduate assistant at Michigan State in 1979, could still talk to his team before the game and at halftime despite quarantining at home after his son — Kellen Sampson, UH’s coach-in-waiting — tested positive for COVID-19. It’s 2020, we’ve never been setup to do more from our living rooms.

But now that the second half’s started and South Carolina is extending its lead, with the Cougars still showing little of the outright hustle and relentless determination to not give up any uncontested shots that squeezed fellow college basketball heavyweight Texas Tech into submission just six days before, no Sampson can save the nation’s 10th-ranked team. Now, it’s up to White and the players who are in uniform.

The acting coach calls timeout just 72 seconds into the second half. White knows there is no time to wait. This is not the time to go all Phil Jackson Zen and see if this UH team can work it out on its own. Not in a Kelvin Sampson program. Not after watching his guys give up another barely challenged 3-pointer and an alley-oop fast break dunk.

If the halftime message did not take, White will deliver it again just 72 ticks into the new half. With even more forceful and colorful words this time.

Quannas White berserk is a little different from Kelvin Sampson berserk. But it turns out, it’s just as effective in its own way. DeJon Jarreau, Tramon Mark, Quentin Grimes, Brison Gresham, Jamal Shead (yes, Jamal Shead) and company rip off a 14-2 run after White’s quick timeout. Houston never trails again in a 77-67 victory over another Power 5 conference team.

“We don’t hesitate there,” Sampson says in a postgame Zoom session from his house when I ask if he immediately knew why White called timeout. “We hold our guys to standards. We require them to play up to the standards that we set for this program. And there’s a big difference between playing hard and competing. . .

“They didn’t compete at any point in the first half. And they sure didn’t compete to start the second half. Coach Q called timeout to remind them of that. And I thought it was a tremendous timeout by him. The timing was great. I can only imagine what he said in the huddle.”

Whatever it was worked. Houston’s Top 10 ranking and spotless record (4-0) are both intact. That’s a heck of a timeout.

White, who admits he wants to be a head coach someday as almost every high-level assistant does, could use this game as a quite a audition tape. White was Sampson’s point guard on Oklahoma’s 2002 Final Four team. There may be no more demanding job in college basketball than being Kelvin Sampson’s point guard. White’s seen plenty of quick timeouts and incredulous rants.

On this Saturday, he finds himself calling one — and steadying his mentor’s program in a high-intensity moment. That’s pretty cool. So is getting to hand the game ball to his wife Leah and his four kids after the win.

And yes, someday Quannas White could be the head coach of his own program. But right now, his more immediate goal centers around helping the coach who changed his life reach college basketball’s mountaintop.

“My ultimate goal right now is to try and help Coach win a national championship,” White says.

For the 65-year-old Sampson — who coached at traditional power schools Oklahoma and Indiana — to do that at the University of Houston would be one of sport’s best and most improbable stories. Only, it does not seem quite so impossible anymore. Not with what Sampson has methodically built in the Third Ward.

Kelvin Sampson’s Misery is an Opponent’s Real Pain

Kelvin Sampson uses the word “miserable” four times in 40 seconds when asked what watching his team play from home was like. “I’d rather wrestle a porcupine than have to do that again,” Sampson says.

But imagine what it must be like to try and beat Sampson’s deep and determined Top 10 team. If Sampson thinks he’s wrestling a porcupine as he hangs up 30 times on Kellen during the game and snaps at his wife Karen in frustration over his helplessness, UH’s opponents must feel like they’re trying to pin a ravenous grizzly bear. With one hand tied behind their back.

UH coach Kelvin Sampson
UH coach Kelvin Sampson is even more frustrated stuck watching at home than he can get on the sidelines. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

With Houston’s most natural scorer (Caleb Mills) wearing a boot on his left foot and its best 3-pointer shooter (Marcus Sasser) wearing a boot on his right foot, the Cougars are not close to full strength 0n this first December Saturday. Its coach and its lead assistant are both out due to COVID protocols. Its point guard DeJon Jarreau, who supercharges that 14-2 run, has to sit out large stretches of the second half with foul trouble.

And yet, UH builds a 16-point lead over an SEC team in the second half before settling for a 10-point win. This despite only playing about 18 of the 40 minutes at anything resembling its top form. American Athletic Conference teams are not supposed to be able to do that. Only, the very best programs in America are supposed to be able to do that.

“When you’re playing a really good basketball team, that’s a program,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin says in his own postgame Zoom with reporters. “Not a school that’s got two good players. You’re playing a team that’s got a program.”

There should be little doubt anymore whether UH is truly a Top 10 team. Quannas White is not chasing rainbows when he brings up a push to see Kelvin Sampson win a national title, which would put the UH coach in an echelon he’s long belonged in. Just like Houston athletic director Chris Pezman wasn’t crazy when he first publicly broached the notion of a Final Four run to PaperCity last March.

Those who follow college basketball closely know how good this Houston team can be.

Those who don’t probably should not be voting in the polls anymore. UH’s true power can be seen with both Mills and Sasser out. For there is Tramon Mark, the four-star recruit from Dickinson High, just 29 miles down I-45, sliding into the starting lineup and scoring 18 points in 35 minutes. Everyone knew Mark would be good. He’s one of the highest ranked recruits in the Houston program’s history.

But few realized he’d be quite this good — and consistently impactful — quite this quickly. Except maybe Tramon Mark and Kelvin Sampson.

“I did expect to play a big role because me and Samps had our talk and we knew what that was about,” Mark says when I ask if he thought he could make this kind of early impact. “I expect to play a big role and play a big part in the team.”

Mark may be the only freshman who’s ever called Kelvin Sampson “Samps” and he also showing an ability to use his lefty game to draw fouls at a rate one of the NBA superstars (James Harden) he models his game after would appreciate. Mark gets to the free throw line 12 times against South Carolina. With now veteran guard Quentin Grimes getting there 15 more times (and hitting 14 of those in a 23-point night), the Gamecocks are often left flailing in frustration.

These Cougar guards just keep coming. With Sasser out with an ankle injury and Jarreau stuck in foul limbo, pedaling away on the exercise bike in the corner, freshman Jamal Shead plays more minutes against South Carolina (25) than he did in the first three games combined (20). And there Shead is hitting a pull up in the lane during that game-shifting 14-2 spurt, and even adding a three. White, the acting coach, shows plenty of confidence in the young point guard and is rewarded for it.

“My ultimate goal right now is to try and help Coach win a national championship.” — UH assistant Quannas White

This is UH basketball, too. Leaning into the possibilities. There are plenty of them for these players, this team, this father of the program. Kelvin Sampson, who has tested negative for COVID himself so far, will have to miss Wednesday’s game against Sam Houston State — which shouldn’t be as high stress as this one — as well due to contact tracing protocols. Quannas White will run things on the sidelines again.

White knows he is keeping the big seat warm for the real run to come.

“The job’s not done,” White says. “We’ve got to move forward. I love this team. I think this team has a chance to do something really special come March.”

Cutting down the nets in Indianapolis special? That’s not guaranteed for any program, no matter how elite or storied its history and pedigree are. Zion Williamson did not even make a Final Four. Plenty of circumstance is involved with any long tournament run. But only elite programs can even realistically scheme of such things — and put themselves in position to take advantage of the right bounce.

The University of Houston clearly has a Top 10 worthy basketball program. These Cougars look like they want to stay there a while, too. Now, the fun really begins.

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