Culture / Sporting Life

Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Program is Just Getting Started — College Basketball’s Best “New” Brand Has Growing Power

With Five Star Recruit Jarace Walker and One of America's Best Backcourts, the Cougars Elite Status is Only Strengthening

BY // 03.30.22

With tears still in his eyes, Taze Moore sought out Jamal Shead in the University of Houston locker room to deliver a pointed message and try to pass it forward. “You know how this feels,” Moore told Shead in the long moments after UH’s Elite Eight loss to Villanova. “Now come back and win it all next year.”

“I believe they can do it too,” Moore tells PaperCity after relaying the scene. “No doubt.”

Winning it all can never be anything close to a certainty. Especially in the one loss and you’re out format of the NCAA Tournament. But Moore’s message still carries plenty of meaning for this Houston basketball program. Having made three straight Sweet 16s, two Elite Eight Eights and one Final Four in the last three seasons, Kelvin Sampson’s program is still just getting started in many ways.

“When you look back at what this has become,” UH lead assistant Kellen Sampson says. “I think in a lot of ways, it’s what it’s becoming. I don’t think we’ve hit our ceiling as far as what we can do.”

Houston winning two conference championships (both the regular season and tournament) and making it all the way to the Elite Elite was improbable this season because Kelvin Sampson’s team lost Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, arguably its two most talented players, to season ending injuries. But with Sasser and Mark, a run like this almost would be expected.

That’s the elite air this completely rebuilt and Sampson imagined University of Houston program now occupies. Kelvin Sampson and one of the best coaching and support staffs in America have turned UH into one of college basketball’s best “new” brands. This is now a program top recruits — like Jarace Walker, the best high school power forward in America, and fellow Top 100 ranked players Terrance Arceneaux and Emanuel Sharp — seek out.

“The job that Coach and his staff and those kids have done galvanizing our fan base and getting Cougar red nation feeling it and understanding what winning means,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman tells PaperCity. “And what it feels like. And where we’re going.

“Our best days are ahead.”

The University of Houston Cougars basketball team defeated the Virginia Cavaliers at the Fertitta Center
Marcus Sasser is all about seizing the moment in big games. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

If both Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark return to team up with Jamal Shead, Houston should have one of the best — if not the best — backcourts in America next season. With front court battlers J’Wan Roberts and Reggie Chaney set to return — and Walker and explosive small forward Terrance Arceneaux coming in, that looks like the makings of a potential Top 10 team. In fact, it’s hard to imagine this year’s Houston team losing to Villanova — or going 1 for 20 from three — if Sasser had been able to play.

“I think in a lot of ways, it’s what it’s becoming. I don’t think we’ve hit our ceiling as far as what we can do.” — UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson

Of course, in a college basketball world of unexpected early NBA Draft departures (see Armoni Brooks a few years ago) and transfer portal uncertainty, you can never take anything for granted. Exactly what next season’s Houston team will look like in October is still very much to be decided.

Still, just Walker’s addition will give UH something it really hasn’t had in Kelvin Sampson’s entire eight season run in the Third Ward — an uber skilled, athletic and powerful true power forward. Walker’s play in the McDonald’s All-American Game on Tuesday night showed how much the first five star recruit of Sampson’s University of Houston tenure already cares about rebounding and defense. Walker also displayed a playmaking ability and an eagerness to set up his teammates that many of the scouting reports may have missed.

Kelvin Sampson’s Houston teams play unselfishly — and they win. Usually big. UH has won 143 games over the last five seasons, second in the country to only Gonzaga. Kelvin Sampson’s Houston program is very much an established college basketball brand now. With fan support that is starting to reflect that.

“In its own way, it’s validating.” Pezman says of the scene in San Antonio for the South Regional where Houston fans drove three hours to completely take over an NBA-sized arena. “If you guys had a chance to look around that arena. . .

“It wasn’t that long ago that people didn’t think we were capable of doing those things.”

There is no doubting what this University of Houston men’s basketball program is capable of doing now. In truth, there has been no reason to for several seasons now. But in sports, like in life, some people are slower to catch on than others. Including some in the media.

Kelvin Sampson and the University of Houston Way

Kelvin Sampson’s program is building on itself, fostering an ethos of doing whatever you can for your teammates. That is how you get a guy like Reggie Chaney playing almost an entire season with a sometimes debilitating hand injury. Just continuing to fight through because his team needs it.

“It meant a lot,” Chaney says of still contributing to a 32-6 team despite the injury. “Now my teammates understand I did everything in my power to sacrifice and do what I needed to do to help my team win.

“I’ve always kind of been like that. That’s kind of my personality on and off the court. I just want to win.”

Reggie Chaney Houston Kelvin Sampson
Reggie Chaney is an inside force — and an example of the depth Houston builds under Kelvin Sampson. (Courtesy UH Athletics)

This is the backdrop of how you build special seasons. And continue to stack them up. One after the other after the other.

“There’s something that’s coming for us,” Pezman says. “We’ve always kind of had that view that we’ve always had less. Just kind of had an inferiority complex a little bit. That’s got to stop. Because this is who we are.

“And what we’re doing with (basketball) and collectively, this is a special place. And it’s going to continue that way. . . And the best part is our fans are all in. You see that arena filled with red? Get used to it.”

Go ahead and come back and win it all next season? Taze Moore’s message may be bold, but it fits right in with a Houston program that isn’t going to stop reaching higher.

“This isn’t our last run in March,” Kellen Sampson says.

“Houston basketball is good,” head coach Kelvin Sampson says. “It’s alive and well. And it’s not going anywhere. We’re going to be good for a while.”

In many ways, this Houston program is only getting going now.

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