UH guard Marcus Sasser is showing the way. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The 2021 Final Four is up in the Fertitta Center, a symbol of a special team. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Kelvin Sampson has one of the very best coaching staffs in America. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
UH forward Jarace Walker brings a ton of talent to the table. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
UH point guard Jamal Shead knows how to control a game. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jim Nantz loves being able to call the University of Houston his alma mater. (Courtesy UH Athletics)
Marcus Sasser shows the fight Kelvin Sampson's UH program is known for.(Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Everyone knows what UH playing a Final Four in Houston would mean.
University of Houston's cheerleaders bring plenty to the Fertitta Center party. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
UH forward J'Wan Roberts can create baskets for others with his passing too. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
UH's six Final Four banners mean plenty. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Marcus Sasser's shooting stroke is pure. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Knicks rising star Quentin Grimes (right) thoroughly enjoyed being back at UH. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston assistant coach Quannas White is always working with UH point guard Jamal Shead. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
UH super freshman Jarace Walker is headed to the NBA one day soon. But he's enjoying every minute of his time at UH first. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
UH guard Tramon Mark gives the Cougars another point guard worthy passer. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston point guard Jamal Shead turns into Manor Mal when he attacks the rim. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston wing Terrance Arceneaux knows setting up Reggie Chaney is a good idea. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston freshman forward Jarace Walker (No. 25) easily should be a Top 8 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
FORT WORTH — The room holds all the charm of a meeting room in a Days Inn. Dickies Arena has some nice spaces, but this is not one of them. The TV is smaller than you’d find in some hotel rooms and turning up the volume to hear the Selection Show better seems to be a mission even Tom Cruise would find impossible. Seating is enough of an issue that UH assistant coach Hollis Price casually hops up on a side counter and athletic director Chris Pezman just stands in the back. But maybe in a way, this rather humble setting is the perfect way for Kelvin Sampson’s workmanlike University of Houston program to ascend to another new mountaintop.
Make no mistake, that is exactly what being one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, the second overall seed in the entire 68 team field, represents. And just because Houston fans knew it was coming doesn’t make it any less monumental. Or outright special.
The University of Houston is still one of the teams cut to live (or nearly live) on CBS’s Selection Show for a reaction shot. UH is still big time even as it stays close to its humble roots.
Yes, the UH players hear CBS commentator Seth Davis outright question their seeding and placement in the Midwest Region live. With Davis proclaiming that Kansas and not Houston should be the second overall seed in the field and Kansas City Regional bound. Houston point guard Jamal Shead quickly dismisses those questions out loud, for his teammates to hear, as Davis keeps talking on that medium-sized screen.
Surprisingly, this is nothing new. You’ll still always find someone — and often several someones — eager to question the 31-3 team that sits atop both major college basketball polls and ranks No. 1 in the analytics driven KenPom ratings. But Davis insists Houston should be the third No. 1 seed rather than the second, then picks them to lose to Texas.
No matter. A few more prominent doubters can’t take away from the moment. UH coach Kelvin Sampson knows what Houston being a No. 1 seed means, the journey it represents. Yes, everyone almost immediately moves right on to America’s bracket obsession (your Uncle Joe who hasn’t watched one college basketball game all year will probably dismiss Houston in his bracket too). Some of this jump ahead has merit.
After all, Houston and star guard Marcus Sasser’s strained groin don’t have much time before UH tips off against 16th seed Northern Kentucky at 8:20 pm Thursday night (on TNT with UH proud Jim Nantz on the call). The Cougars will be leaving for Birmingham, Alabama (its first and second round site) on Tuesday.
There is not much time to reflect. But Kelvin Sampson, the should be Hall of Fame Coach who always seems to recognize the moment no matter what he’s going through personally, knows what that No. 1 next to Houston’s name in all those brackets underscores.
“It was hard not to think back to 2014,” Sampson says. “The shape of the program. The apathy. The resources. The facilities. And look where we are now. So it’s a great accomplishment. Really, really proud of the program. Not just this team. All the players that came before we stand on their shoulders. . .
“Being a One Seed is a tremendous accomplishment. And kind of pretty cool knowing where we started.”
Most UH fans are probably already looking ahead to what would be a second round Saturday matchup with either No. 8 seed Iowa or No. 9 seed Auburn. Many are even already talking second weekend scenarios — and possible Sweet 16 matchups with Indiana or Miami. And the chance for an Elite Eight showdown with No. 2 seed Texas with a trip to the Houston Final Four on the line.
All that conjecture and future casting is beyond premature. Especially considering how fraught those 8 and 9 vs. 1 games often are — and what playing a 3-point mad Iowa team (see the six triples the Hawkeyes hit in 90 seconds to steal a game from Michigan State) or facing Auburn just a few hours from their campus could be like.
“New season now,” Jamal Shead, the vocal player leader of this UH team, says as the Cougars rather morosely fill into that nondescript room, with a 75-65 loss to Memphis in the AAC Championship Game still less than 30 minutes old. (Side note: Playing a conference tournament game on Sunday, especially the last conference tournament game to finish, is no way to enjoy Selection Sunday. Thankfully, that will no longer be an issue with UH moving into the Big 12, which crowns its tournament champion on Saturday.)
Shead isn’t just trying to lift his teammates’ spirits when he calls out “New Season.” He’s sending a message too.
“Our overall record is 31-3,” Shead tells PaperCity, explaining that message. “But when you go into the tournament, it’s win or go home. There is no more wins and losses. You have to win to keep playing. So new season means new season.
“You can go 6-0. Or go 2-1, 3-1. Hopefully, we’ll go 6-0.”
Of course if this special Houston team does go 6-0, it will be cutting down the nets at NRG Stadium on April 3. The core of this UH team has been talking about working to get back to this moment forever. Since the first workout in June. Since Houston lost to Villanova in the Elite Eight last March for guys like Jamal Shead and J’Wan Roberts. Since UH lost to Baylor in the 2021 Final Four for Marcus Sasser, who came back for one last Big Dance.
“In the offseason, I definitely heard it a lot,” says UH freshman wing Terrance Arceneaux, who gets 35 valuable minutes of playing time against Memphis with Sasser still hurting and sitting out. “And as we got closer and closer, I definitely heard it. ‘You’ve got to be ready. You’ve got to be ready.’
“And as we got into March, it was like, ‘It’s go time.’ ”
In many ways, this Houston program is built for March. This is the 19th team that Kelvin Sampson has taken to the NCAA Tournament over his coaching career. He knows how to manage the Madness and help give a team every chance to survive and advance. But that still doesn’t guarantee anything in this fickle single elimination format.
“Being a One Seed is a tremendous accomplishment. And kind of pretty cool knowing where we started.” — UH coach Kelvin Sampson
UH Earns This No. 1 Seed Bracket Moment
The University of Houston isn’t a No. 1 seed by happenstance though. This eagerly unselfish, supremely talented group is that good.
“I feel like we earned it,” Sasser says. “We’ve got a good team. But it’s the tournament, so anything can happen. This is what we really prepare for all season. March Madness. It’s here now.
“You’ve just got to go out there and play like it’s your last game. Because it might be.”
“Our overall record is 31-3. But when you go into the tournament, it’s win or go home. There is no more wins and losses. You have to win to keep playing. So new season means new season.” — UH point guard Jamal Shead
You know Kelvin Sampson and this coaching staff will have this No. 1 team prepared. Sampson made sure to mark this moment, to put Houston getting a No. 1 seed in perspective, but he is already looking at Northern Kentucky clips on the bus ride back to UH’s campus from Fort Worth.
Time waits for no one in the NCAA Tournament. Especially not the most humble super elite program in America.
“We’re always going to take the blue collar, lunch pail approach,” UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “We don’t necessarily want all of the bells. Coach says it all the time, ‘Easy times make soft men.’ ”
There is nothing easy about turning yourself into a No. 1 seed type of program. Especially at the University of Houston and where it stood when Kelvin Sampson came in.
“Having gone to school here, it’s even more meaningful,” athletic director Chris Pezman, a UH alum himself, says of the basketball program’s rise to these heights under Sampson. “I’ve been here for some lean times. And to have a moment like this is really, really cool.”
Let Seth Davis question on. Let anyone with doubts about this No. 1 seed Houston team raise them. Kelvin Sampson and his guys have worked their way to March, to what they’ve built to all season. And the view looks fine. No matter what type of room they are in or who’s talking.