Culture / Sporting Life

UH’s Midnight Run — a Late Night Film Session, Sampson’s Tweaks and America’s Most Unselfish Senior Guard Bring Houston’s Dominance Back

DeJon Jarreau Sets the Pace for This Final Four Contender — and Tramon Mark is Catching On

BY // 02.22.21

When Kelvin Sampson’s University of Houston basketball team landed around midnight Thursday, the Cougars were returning to a Houston still darker and colder than usual. The coach still scheduled an immediate film session, the better to try and wash away the bitter aftertaste of a loss to Wichita State.

As Thursday night turned into Friday morning, UH’s basketball players relived some of the lowlights of a Final Four driven team’s second loss in four games.

“We had film at 12:30 in the morning. We didn’t leave till about 1’o’clock in the morning,” Houston guard Quentin Grimes says. “The culture here is different. I don’t think any program’s doing that.”

As usual, Sampson’s madness is accompanied by plenty of method. The witching hour film session becomes the first step in UH getting its swagger back. Addressing the sins of a lost night in south central Kansas as quickly as possible frees up Sampson to tackle the future. The coach makes several tweaks in the short lead up to Sunday’s home against Cincinnati that just may allow this Houston team to reach its full dominant potential after all.

The immediate result is a 90-52 annihilation of a Cincinnati team that came in feeling good about itself, riding a four game winning streak that brought thoughts of a corner being turned. But the Bearcats have absolutely no chance against what Cincinnati coach John Brannen calls “a national championship good” Cougars team in his postgame Zoom press conference.

Not with what Sampson’s unleashed.

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UH’s basketball lifer of a coach takes pride in the fact that his teams almost always improve over the course of the season, something some more publicized national program coaches cannot claim. But this bizarre COVID-19 season will be the ultimate test of that Sampson bedrock. In fact, it’s no stretch to argue that these 18-3 Cougars have not looked as good as they did in beating Texas Tech in a hostile environment in Fort Worth in late November for awhile now.

Until this redemption Sunday. Until Grimes, DeJon Jarreau, Fabian White Jr., Tramon Mark and Co. take apart Cincinnati like a devious kid pulling off an insect’s wings. On this day, the Cougars are relentless, ruthlessly efficient — and maybe even a little cruel. Everything an elite team with serious March visions needs to be.

“I think we needed not a blowout, but to kind of like just dominate and show everybody we’re still that same team,” Grimes says. “We didn’t fall anywhere off the map. We need this game to come out there and kind of show we’re still Houston Cougars.

“And we’re still one of the best teams in the country.”

There is nothing quite like a 38-point win over a proud conference opponent to bring the swagger — and good feelings — back.

Down 19-18 early, the Cougars rip off a 19-2 run and just keep adding on, like a merciless power company calculating a bill after a historic winter storm. Sampson’s team pushes the pace, racking up 20 fast break points, keeping the COVID-limited Fertitta Center crowd thoroughly entertained. In short, UH attacks all game long, outscoring the Bearcats 40-16 in the paint with its guards getting to the rim, or setting up an easy shot, again and again.

This is no happy accident, though. No mere good game from heaven. Kelvin Sampson orchestrates this destruction with several key adjustments, cooked up by him and his staff in the wake of that Wichita State loss.

“Whenever he’s playing like that, I feel like we’re the best team in the country.” — Quentin Grimes on UH point guard DeJon Jarreau.

While power does not return to almost all of Houston until Friday afternoon, UH’s 65-year-old coach shines a light on his program much earlier, displaying plenty of energy in the midnight hour.

First, Sampson decides to make sure almost all the Cougars’ set plays center around getting Quentin Grimes, Marcus Sasser or the newly returned Fabian White Jr. good shots. Democracy is a world lifting concept, but it does not work in big-time basketball.

“The ball’s got to be in Quentin and Marcus’ hands more,” Sampson says when I ask about the apparent difference. “And now that we’ve got Fabian back (from ACL surgery rehab), in his hands more. And (senior point guard) Dejon Jarreau is the one that wants that.

“Friday, that’s what we worked on. I said here’s a set of actions we’re going to run for Quentin. Here’s a set we’re going to run for Marcus. And when Fabian comes in, we’ll run this for him. You’ll notice most of our stuff terminated with those three guys.

“. . . Quentin and Marcus should lead this team in shot attempts. I told the guys yesterday, ‘This ain’t Little League baseball where everybody’s going to get a trophy.’ Here’s how this offense is going to look.”

Sampson does not stop there. He also turns super freshman Tramon Mark into a primary playmaker off the bench, unleashing more of arguably UH’s most naturally gifted player’s abilities. When Jarreau is out of the game — and sometimes even when he is still in — Mark is entrusted with initiating the action against Cincinnati.

The result? Mark puts up 12 points, six rebounds and three assists in 25 minutes, playing one of his most impactful and controlled games of the entire season.

“Look at Tramon today,” Sampson says. “How good was he?

“. . . Tramon, as his career goes on, is just a multi-faceted guard. He’s not a point guard, but he can play point guard.”

Tramon Mark UH
Tramon Mark’s creativity can push UH to another level. (Courtesy UH Athletics)

Jarreau still drives this Top 10 team on this afternoon, finishing a remarkable plus 38 in 24 minutes of court time. But in many ways, it is Jarreau’s unselfishness, his willingness to let Mark thrive initiating plays too, that unlocks these Next Level Coogs. If UH is able to reach its peak potential in March and make a run to the Final Four, DeJon Jarreau will almost be more responsible for it than anyone.

DeJon Jarreau, Pace Maker

This once wild point guard is also key to the third tweak Sampson and his staff make. UH pushes the pace against Cincinnati with a renewed fervor a Pentecostal minister would appreciate. This comes after the coaches break down just how much more dangerous — and almost unbeatable (at least against non super teams) — this UH squad is when it gets at least 70 offensive possessions in a game.

Two of Houston’s three losses have come when the Cougars were held under 65 points, something that should never happen against an American Athletic Conference team if Jarreau, Grimes and Co. are playing at the proper pace. Houston falling into stretches where it does not play as fast as it should is a particular pet peeve of future head coach to be Kellen Sampson. The younger Sampson’s brought it up in interviews with me for several years.

Getting a bunch of 18 to 24 year olds to keep pushing the ball is not always easy though. It takes hard work. And a dogged, concerted defensive rebounding effort from the guards, possession after possession after possession.

“Really, it’s our guards rebounding,” Jarreau says. “If you look at last game, I think me and Quentin only had two or three rebounds. Come back this game and he had eight defensive and I had five. Just to get it off the rim and start the break. . .”

The result is a sometimes breathtaking display that leaves the Bearcats coughing in the Cougars’ dust. Pushing the ball, and making sure plays end up in the right hands when things slow down, does a world of good. Grimes seizes the game almost from the opening tip, finishing with a game-high 20 points. Sasser racks up 10 quick points in a feel-good second half. White collects 10 points and nine rebounds in only his second game back.

In many ways, it is DeJon Jarreau’s unselfishness, his willingness to let Tramon Mark thrive initiating plays too, that unlocks these Next Level Coogs.

All the while, Jarreau and Mark orchestrate plenty of action, while combining for 23 points and 11 rebounds themselves. This is what this University of Houston basketball team can be at its best. Or its borderline best. An absolute wrecking crew in sneakers. With DeJon Jarreau pushing the pace.

“Whenever he’s playing like that,” Grimes says of Jarreau, “I feel like we’re the best team in the country.”

University of Houston Cougars DeJon Jarreau
DeJon Jarreau’s ability to push the pace and get to the rim is game changing for the University of Houston. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)

It starts with that late night film session with a basketball lifer of a coach who is just as ornery and bothered by a loss as ever. Kelvin Sampson brings his team to the gym for a 7:30 am tuneup session on the morning of this noon game with Cincinnati, too. This is a coach who always seems to have a plan — and a memorable quote — for every situation.

“I almost lost my lunch just watching us rebound the other night (against Wichita State),” Kelvin Sampson says. “Someone with diabetes, they need insulin to live. An asthmatic needs an inhaler. Everybody has to have something to sustain them or give them life.

“For us, we don’t just have to rebound. We have to rebound to live.”

These Cougars are suddenly very much alive, clearly still Top 10 worthy, no matter what the new Top 25 reads (Houston is ranked No. 12). This talented UH team still has a chance to reach its full potential. Whether it’s after midnight or one in the afternoon, Kelvin Sampson will never let his guys forget that.

Not for long. Not on his watch. It turns out that this basketball lifer sets quite a pace, too.

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