Culture / Sporting Life

UH Ties a Crazy Duke Basketball Record — Kelvin Sampson’s Program Elbows its Way Into Land of Giants One Little Moment at a Time

How Quentin Grimes' Rebound Explains Everything About a Remarkable 51-9 Run

BY // 02.07.20

It seems like a largely inconsequential play in a game long since decided. Quentin Grimes beats a Tulane player to a basketball clanging off the rim, grabs the offensive rebound and puts it back in to give his University of Houston team a 19-point lead with 3:01 remaining.

No biggie, right? Look again.

UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson leaps off the bench, pumping his fist several times as he jumps around in his suit. It almost looks like the younger Sampson is celebrating an NCAA Tournament win or something. Or at the very least, a buzzer beater.

Instead, Sampson — the son of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson and the Cougar program’s future head coach — is beyond pumped because Grimes followed through on a commitment to rebound, part of a push from the coaching staff to get the talented transfer from Kansas to play with more aggression and force. Yes, one offensive rebound in a runaway game can get a Sampson as excited as Leonardo DiCaprio at a models convention.

There are no small things in this UH basketball program.

Which may be why the University of Houston is now 51-9 over the last two seasons after Thursday night’s 75-62 brush back of Tulane. 51-9.

That’s an absurd set of numbers — and the type of run that only college basketball blue bloods are supposed to be able to have. In fact, Duke is also 51-9 over the last two seasons (19-3 this year and 32-6 in 2018-19). And Mike Krzyzewski had Zion Williamson for more than half of that time.

Take Baylor. The Bears are the No. 1 team in the land, 20-1 this season, winners of every game since November 8. But Scott Drew’s program is “only” 40-15 over the last two seasons, nothing close to UH’s run.

“When I saw it on paper, I said that looks like something Gonzaga would be,” Kelvin Sampson says of his program’s 51-9 run. “Or Virginia. You don’t think of that.”

Virginia is the reigning national champs and Tony Bennett’s program is 50-9 over the last two seasons, actually one less win overall than UH and Duke. Gonzaga is a crazy good 57-5.

No one is arguing the University of Houston is on the same level as Duke basketball. But Kelvin Sampson now has UH winning as consistently as the most vaunted programs in America.

Just think about this Houston program that was in tatters when Sampson first took over five seasons ago, one that had been to one NCAA Tournament game since 1992, being mentioned with any of these  beyond elite level programs. Even the notion of such a thing would have been laughable.

Now. . . 51-9 speaks for itself. Yes, there is a major difference in schedule strength that has to be acknowledged in these comparisons. Houston’s not playing in the ACC. Though one can more than reasonably argue that UH’s conference is stronger than the conference Gonzaga plays in. It’s probably not even that close.

Sampson has Houston on a rare kind of run — even if most of the sports columnists and TV stations in town don’t seem to realize it. This now 18-5 (8-2 and tied for first in the American Athletic Conference) UH team of this season also figures to be the worst team Sampson has in the next several seasons.

After all, this 2019-20 team is full of young players like Grimes, who are still figuring things out, or even younger players like Caleb Mills, who are aren’t even experienced enough to realize how much they still have to figure out.

“We’re not dominant team,” Sampson says of this year’s group. “I never projected us to be. We have not been. We aren’t. And we’re not going to be. Last year’s team — I know what a dominant team looks like. They’re usually full of juniors and seniors. Like Texas Tech last year was a dominant team. Virginia was a dominant team. They were all juniors and seniors.

“Next year, the following year, when these guys are juniors and seniors, we’ve got a chance to be.”

Yet, in this college basketball season with arguably no dominant teams (with some apologies to Baylor) and certainly no Zion or even Ja Morant level transcendent superstars, this UH team may have enough to make some real noise in March. Obvious flaws and all.

Especially if Grimes can find the full potential of his game. Making his first start since January 11 due to DeJon Jarreau’s one-game suspension for a biting incident in Cincinnati that wasn’t close to a full Mike Tyson but certainly was one of the stranger things you’ll see in college basketball, Grimes seems to take a step forward.

He puts up 15 points, five assists and four rebounds — including that one aggressive put back that makes Kellen Sampson’s night and then some.

“I do whatever coach asks me out on the court,” Grimes says. “Feel like last four or five games he’s really been on me about rebounding. I keep going out there, doing what he wants me (to do) and letting everything else come to me. Whether it be points, assists.

“Just go out there with the right mindset. Play hard on defense and rebounding and everything else will just fall into place for me.”

Quentin Grimes’ Rebound

The UH coaching staff is so excited about that one seemingly inconsequential offensive rebound because the coaches know how consequential a locked in Quentin Grimes can be for this team.

These Cougars have one of the most versatile wings in the country in Nate Hinton, who puts up a 12 point, 12 rebound, seven assist line against Tulane. They have a naturally gifted scorer in redshirt freshman Caleb Mills, who drops in 18 points in 22 minutes despite getting called for a travel on his best offensive move of the night. It’s a near James Harden-worthy dribbling display that the ref appears to whistle dead prematurely.

But this Houston team still needs another consistently aggressive scorer — and Grimes is the most qualified to fill the role.

Quentin Grimes UH
Quentin Grimes has shown an ability to get to the basket for the University of Houston. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

With eight regular season games remaining, this flawed but gritty UH team has a legitimate chance to defend the regular season American Athletic Conference title that last season’s dominant 33-4 team won. The Cougars are right there, still atop the standings.

They’ll need to keep getting better, though. Just ask Penny Hardaway and Memphis how quickly things can change, how fast you can suddenly be on Bubble Watch.

Houston’s in the Top 25, flaws and all, because Kelvin Sampson insists his players focus on the little things. The next practice. The next rebound. The next hustle opportunity. Even when they’re up by nearly 20 points.

It’s no coincidence that UH hasn’t lost two games in a row at any time in the last three seasons.

No one is arguing the University of Houston is on the same level as Duke basketball. But Kelvin Sampson now has UH winning as consistently as the most vaunted programs in America.

“We just go to practice the next day,” Hinton says of the Cougars’ mindset after a loss. “We know what we did wrong. And everybody’s held accountable. The culture of the program. We just don’t want to lose two in a row. We know losing has repercussions to it.

“We’ve just got to keep moving forward. It’s just a mindset.”

It is about pushing a talented player to go after the basketball — and then celebrating a Quentin Grimes when he does. It may look like such a little moment. But it leads to awfully big ones.

Duke, Virginia, Gonzaga. . . the University of Houston. Kelvin Sampson’s program is butting in to the realm of giants. 51 and 9. One little moment at a time.

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