Culture / Sporting Life

Houston Loses Scoring Wizard Caleb Mills to Transfer Portal — North Carolina Bound?

Final Four Contender Takes a Hit, But Kelvin Sampson's Overcome Other Obstacles to Get UH This Far

BY // 01.05.21

It’s impossible to (reasonably) argue that the greater freedom college athletes now enjoy is anything but a good thing. But it sure does not make building a program any easier. Kelvin Sampson and the University of Houston are getting a stark reminder of that with Caleb Mills, the Preseason Player of the Year in the Cougars’ conference, entering the transfer portal.

In the midst of what was shaping up as a potential dream season for UH — and still could end up going that way — Sampson loses the program’s most natural scorer. Which is the hardest type of impact player to get in college basketball.

With Mills professing that he wants to play closer to home in a statement released by UH, much of the national focus will immediately switch to where one of the top transfers in the nation will end up next season. Suddenly guard-challenged North Carolina has to be an early favorite. With Wake Forest and Tennessee also potential serious contenders.

Arden, North Carolina — Mills’ hometown — is actually 90 minutes closer to Knoxville than Chapel Hill.

Part of this UH’s team immense potential rested on the belief that Caleb Mills would return to full strength for the Coogs at some point. Now, that’s out the window.

While Mills becomes one of the most highly-sought transfers in the game, Sampson and No. 11 Houston will try to keep their Final Four aspirations alive. While building one of the very best basketball programs in Texas, Sampson has overcome unexpected departures before — including the loss of 3-point difference maker Armoni Brooks before last season and Nate Hinton leaving early for the NBA (where he’s now making an excellent first impression with the Dallas Mavericks) this offseason.

Even with the loss of Mills, the Cougars have one of the deepest backcourt rotations in college basketball with Quentin Grimes, Marcus Sasser, DeJon Jarreau and Tramon Mark, the impact freshman who hasn’t come close to showing his full potential yet. UH also built its 8-1 record with Mills in and out of the lineup due to ankle injuries and coronavirus quarantining.

Still, with all that said, there is no way for this team to outright replace one of the most gifted scorers in America. Mills can create scoring streaks by himself. Consider the 18 points he scored in the last eight minutes of a win over UConn last season. Or the 19 straight points he scored to open the second half of another Cougars’ W.

Part of this UH’s team immense potential rested on the belief that Caleb Mills would return to full strength for the Coogs at some point. Now, that’s out the window.

Mills has had a tough time of it this season — with those nagging ankle injuries and COVID-19. It’s hard for anyone outside of his family to really, truly know how much that weighed into his decision to leave Houston. An unpaid college athlete — part of a system in which almost everyone else makes money off their talent — having more power to make choices is a good thing.

UH Caleb Mills
Caleb Mills is a natural scorer. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

To his credit, Kelvin Sampson does not get worked up over the life decisions his players make. Even if they seem to be influenced by others. At least, not publicly. From the moment, things started swirling around Mills as he stepped away from the Houston program, Sampson has talked about caring about Mills as a person first. And with this basketball lifer who’s seen plenty in his 65 years, you believe that.

“We thank Caleb for his contributions to our program during his time at Houston and wish him and his family the best in the future,” Sampson said in a statement, shortly after the news of Mills entering the transfer portal hit.

It’s harder than ever to build a college basketball program that lasts. Kelvin Sampson has done that at the University of Houston of all places. Now, he gets another unexpected challenge.

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