Culture / Sporting Life

Guarding the Throne — Houston’s Jamal Shead Shows Why He’s the Best Defensive Guard in College Basketball, Refuses to Let No. 1 UH Flounder

Locked Into a No. 1 NCAA Tournament Seed Already, Kelvin Sampson's Team Still Plays to Win — That's All It Knows

BY // 03.10.23

FORT WORTH — East Carolina coach Mike Schwartz might rather face a Cocaine Bear than Jamal Shead. For at least, you’d see or hear the bear coming. Shead, the floor leader of the University of Houston’s No. 1 ranked basketball team, follows no such rules.

Shead just creates chaos for opposing offenses. When UH’s point guard turns up his defensive pressure, it’s easy for even an experienced guard to melt under it. If you’re a little unsure of yourself, you have no chance. Shead will separate you from the basketball quicker than a Times Square Elmo will separate a wide-eyed tourist from $20. He does it twice on East Carolina’s first two possessions of the second half, helping to rouse the nation’s top ranked team from a slumber in its first game of the American Athletic Conference Tournament.

“Jamal Shead is the best on-the-ball defender that we’ve seen,” Schwartz says in the back hallway of Dickies Arena, the East Carolina coach marveling at a different kind of disruptor. “He’s just dynamic. He changes the game with his on-ball defense.

“We talked about it at halftime. Knowing how aggressive Houston was going to come out both offensively and defensively. It’s one thing to be prepared for it. It’s another thing to feel it. It’s one thing to be ready to be in a fight. You get hit in the face, it’s a whole different story. (Shead) changed the game. The intensity of the first six minutes of the second half, his on-ball defense absolutely changed it.”

Just like that, the ferocity of the game is turned up and Houston is on its way to a 60-46 win. UH coach Kelvin Sampson is anything but satisfied, but his team still moves to 30-2 with Selection Sunday beckoning. Marcus Sasser, the UH guard who decided the NBA could wait, will get the lion’s share of credit for this win. And the attention from all those extra reporters who now suddenly think this special Houston team is worthy of the lead story treatment.

And there’s plenty of case for that. After all, Sasser scores half of Houston’s total 60 points. He’s the one guy who consistently hits jumpers on an afternoon when everyone else on both teams seem to be sizing up the rim with a side eye.

But make no mistake, this is a combined effort from the most complete backcourt in America. Shead’s defense gets UH going just as much as Sasser’s smooth shot does.

“All year, Jamal is kind of the one who changes it,” Houston assistant coach Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “When he changes his intensity and when he ratchets up another level, we all come follow him. And he set the tone for the way the second half is going to go.”

This is why this Houston team, one that is already assured of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament no matter what happens the rest of this conference tournament, is as sure of a bet in March as anyone. Super freshman Jarace Walker (five points, five rebounds and four fouls in 22 minutes against East Carolina) and even veteran big man J’Wan Roberts (zero points on 0 for 5 shooting and no free throw attempts, but 12 rebounds and three blocks) sometimes can be hit or miss. But that backcourt of Jamal Shead and Marcus Sasser is the constant, as dependable and consistent as a good mom.

In March, that can be as good as gold. Good guards control March, turn the madness, all that extra noise and mountains of pressure into something manageable. Especially when they can make the other guys break into flop sweats. Jamal Shead does that at his best. Offensive players may not run from him, but many would be better off if they did.

“He is one of the best defensive guards in the country,” Kellen Sampson says of Shead. “And that’s not a new phenomenon. He was last year. He’s just getting a little bit of the credit for it (now). He’s gifted on that end of the floor. Not that he’s not on offense. But he’s gifted on defense.”

That comes through on those first two East Carolina possessions of the second half in this Friday opener. On the first, Shead gets the outright steal, diving on the floor to make sure he beats everyone to the loose ball he created himself. On the second, his ball pressure leads to the turnover — with Roberts officially getting credited for the steal.

The team from Money Heist isn’t even this adept at sneaking in there.

“Jamal’s greatest attribute is his intelligence,” Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “He’s just so smart. He can read things and he anticipate things at a high level. And he knows our system as well as anybody. So he knows what calculated risks and gambles he can take. And to have him as the tip of the spear that makes us a great defensive team.”

University of Houston point guard Jamal Shead can be an absolute lockdown defender. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston point guard Jamal Shead can be an absolute lockdown defender. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Jamal Shead is playing at his best now — when it matters most. UH coach Kelvin Sampson admits he got on Shead hard at times during the long regular season, feeling his point guard was “coasting” at times. But in the last three games, Shead has blitzed Wichita State for a career-high 25 points to steady his team on Senior Night, beat Memphis with a pull-up jumper at the buzzer in a crazy road atmosphere to make Houston the lead story on Scott Van Pelt’s Sunday SportsCenter and picked apart East Carolina’s upset dreams.

Shead often tries to deflect attention away from himself as deftly as he disrupts dribbles. He calls Marcus Sasser Houston’s best player every chance he gets. He points out others’ contributions. Jamal Shead wants his teammates to get their own shine, a point guard at heart in so many ways.

“You just do whatever you can,” Shead says when I ask him about those early tide shifting second half plays. “First half, our effort just wasn’t at a high level. . .

“Loose ball just happened to be by me so I just went after it. And stayed with our culture.”

“He is one of the best defensive guards in the country. And that’s not a new phenomenon. He was last year. He’s just getting a little bit of the credit for it (now).” — UH assistant Kellen Sampson on Jamal Shead

UH Plays to Win the Game

Jamal Shead hits the floor and Houston is rising up, moving into the Saturday semifinals, set to face a Cincinnati team that blew out Temple by 30 points in its game. In truth, with UH having already more than earned a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, a good case could be made that these Cougars almost would be better off losing to the desperate Bearcats rather than facing the possibility of playing an emotional AAC title game on Sunday and then having a quick Thursday NCAA Tournament turnaround.

But a Kelvin Sampson program almost doesn’t allow that type of thinking. The rest reality almost can’t enter into the equation.

“Our culture is so rooted in competitiveness and there’s an opportunity to win,” Kellen Sampson says. “Just go after it. You almost lose a little bit of your credibility with your kids if you start acting like well this game means something.

“No, they all mean something. There’s an opportunity to compete. Just show up and show out, any time they throw the ball up.”

Getting out rebounded 24-14 in the first half by a 16-17 East Carolina team certainly grabbed the Cougars’ attention. And Kelvin Sampson’s wraith.

“That’s what we take pride in our rebounding,” senior forward Reggie Chaney says when I ask him about the numbers. “Any time a team is close or beats us in rebounding, that’s not a good day for sure.”

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team defeated the Tulane Green Wave, Wednesday night at the Fertitta Cente
University of Houston forward Reggie Chaney knows you need to be willing to go to the floor to fight for the ball if you want to be accepted by Kelvin Sampson’s Houston team. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Watching Marcus Sasser shoot though. . . that almost always makes for a good day.

“I wanted him to shoot even more,” Chaney says of Sasser. “I wanted him to shoot every time he touched it.”

Watching Jamal Shead play defense isn’t quite as visually beautiful. But it’s just as intimidating — and it looms just as large.

UH is trying to defend another AAC Championship in this conference tourney (the tournament title). It may not matter at all in college basketball’s bigger overall picture. Or the Cougars’ own picture. But there is no question which UH player is still guarding the throne.

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