Culture / Sporting Life

Kelvin Sampson May Have America’s Most Unselfish Team — Togetherness and Playing With Joy Give No. 1 Houston Real Staying Power

With Jamal Shead and Marcus Sasser Setting the Tone, Passing Is the Thrill For These Coogs

BY // 11.30.22

J‘Wan Roberts knows Reggie Chaney is going to be there. He’s completely certain of it. In fact, the University of Houston’s increasingly-skilled forward told his teammate this would happen. So Roberts barely gives a look before he flings the pass over his shoulder that hits a cutting Chaney right in the hands, setting up the easiest of slam dunks.

“I didn’t see it,” Roberts tells PaperCity. “I already knew what the gameplan was. I knew when I get the ball in the post, they were going to bring the double team. I told Reggie before the game, I was going to hit him with that type of a pass.

“It was already set in stone.”

The sequence is just one of the 26 assists that the newly No. 1 ranked University of Houston basketball team racks up in its 100-52 demolition of a Norfolk State team that managed to stay within 17 points of Baylor on the road. It’s just one good assist in a near endless roll call of crisp passing, but it’s also telling and instructive of just selflessly and together the nation’s No. 1 team is playing.

There is a real sense of joy around these now 7-0 Cougars, one that turns a Tuesday night game against a mid major into a lively Fertitta Center party. This is evident in the way super freshman Jarace Walker and Roberts, really almost everyone on the bench, go absolutely bonkers for 12th man Ryan Elvin’s late run of shots. This is no half fake stars cheer for the bench warmer rote stuff either. Roberts may jump higher on that sideline when Elvin hits a three then he does on one of his own dunks. And Walker clearly can’t wait to dap his teammate up, running onto the court to do it.

But it really doesn’t matter who’s scoring. Or at what point in the game. This team gets excited for everyone. Whether it’s preseason All-American guard Marcus Sasser ball handling an unfortunate Norfolk State defender into a dazed stumble before rising up to hit a ridiculous stepback 3-pointer that James Harden would appreciate. Or talented 19-year-old big man Ja’Vier Francis turning into a human pogo stick off a Jamal Shead setup.

“It starts in practice,” Sasser says of the unselfish current that seems to run through Kelvin Sampson’s most talented UH team. “We try to teach the young guys it’s not just about yourself. It’s about the team. Everything needs to revolve around the team.”

It starts with Sasser, Shead and fellow uber guard talent Tramon Mark in many ways. Any of the three is capable of taking over almost any college basketball game. And all three do at times this night. From Sasser hitting four 3-pointers in a first half spree to Mark turning into the ultimate drive and dish distributor.

All three finish with great stat lines (Sasser 25 points, four assists, two steals; Shead 12 points, 11 assists and a game-best plus 44 rating in 29 minutes; Mark 16 points, six assists and five rebounds). But none of them make the game about them.

“The big thing is being unselfish,” Sampson says. “That’s why this is a good group to coach because they are.”

Whether this University of Houston team is really the best basketball team in all the land will be decided in the many months to come, partly in an NCAA Tournament where the very best team doesn’t come close to always winning. Even now, one could argue that Purdue or future UH December opponent Virginia have the most impressive resume of wins in the country.

But you’ll be hard pressed to find any team in America that is playing with more togetherness, unselfishness and joy than Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars. Houston earned this No. 1 national ranking with years and years of relentless work, partly on the backs of former players like DeJon Jarreau, the point guard on that breakthrough 2021 Final Four team who is in the Fertitta Center crowd on this night, loving every minute of the No. 1 ranking buzz.

It took forever for Houston to get back to No. 1. Nearly 40 years and one program changing Should Be Hall of Fame Coach‘s greatest rebuild to be a little more precise. So why not enjoy it and hold onto it for a while?

“It’s one of those things where you don’t want to have it for just one day,” Lauren Sampson, UH’s do-everything director of basketball operations, tells PaperCity with a laugh. “That’s one of the things we thought about because that’s just how my dad thinks. It would stink if we lost it in a day.

“Let’s do something with it.”

On this Tuesday night at the gleaming on-campus arena Kelvin Sampson insisted on when he signed his first UH contract, the Cougars turn it into a vessel of shared joy. And Sampson takes time after the 48 point win to work a powerful message about racism — and the fallacy of those who claim to be too uncomfortable to talk about it — into his postgame press conference. Something few other coaches in America could do so authentically.

This is Houston basketball, your No. 1 ranked team in America, too. College basketball’s a little better for having Sampson and UH at the top of its polls too.

UH Coogs beat Norfolk State 100-54 at the Fertitta Center
UH All-American guard Marcus Sasser is a difference maker for one of the country’s best teams. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

“That’s like one of the biggest accomplishments I’ve ever seen,” DeJon Jarreau says of the No. 1 ranking after getting stopped by UH fan after UH fan, eager to still give the former point guard some love. “That’s like all their hard work and all the hard work that Coach Sampson ever did, instilling his culture into wherever he goes and just all the current players and former players buying in.

“. . . And it finally paid off.”

UH’s No. 1 Staying Power

Now that is has, this particular UH team’s unselfishness and sense of joy could help keep the Cougars at No. 1 for a while.

“It’s one of those things where you don’t want to have it for just one day.” — UH director of basketball operations Lauren Sampson on the No. 1 national ranking 

Sasser, Shead and Co. played a little tight with the prospect of the No. 1 ranking dangling there for the taking in Saturday’s 49-44 win over Kent State. So they vowed to bring the joy back, the extra passing and extra enthusiasm back.

Jamal Shead not taking a single shot in 16 second half minutes with Houston already up beyond big, using that time to rack up eight assists and get teammates like Francis (11 points, eight rebounds) more moments instead is a conscious decision. So is J’Wan Roberts (1o points, five rebounds and three assists in only 17 minutes) waiting for the perfect chance to flip that pass to Chaney.

“It’s just being smart with ball and not rushing ourselves,” Roberts tells PaperCity. “You do it in practice and your teammates see what you’re capable of. And then they’re working to get you the ball and everyone’s being unselfish.”

You can feed unselfishness just like anything else. Yes, it seems to come naturally to this most talented of UH teams. But tell Kelvin Sampson that and he’ll all but laugh at the notion.

“No, they’re all about shooting every ball,” the basketball lifer of a coach says when I ask if it’s a natural unselfishness with this group, “No. Where Tramon came from if the ball went out of bounds, Tramon may shoot it while he’s saving it.

“. . . No, these guys are all scorers. We’ve had to get them to play the way we want them to play. It’s always a process. But they’re high character kids. And they want to win. And when you’re a good kid and you want to win, you’re usually coachable.”

UH Coogs beat Norfolk State 100-54 at the Fertitta Center
The joy this No. 1 ranked UH team plays with is apparent. Here, super freshman Jarace Walker delights in junior guard Ryan Elvin’s late game moments. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

The new No. 1 could stay No. 1 for a while because of this shared sense of a mission, one that reaches beyond even them in some ways, back to guys they used to share a locker room with or just heard about.

“I’m grateful to be part of it,” Jarreau says in the hallway outside the locker room he still considers home in all the important ways. “But I’m just a piece of it. I’m not the main piece. I’m just a little piece. These guys are taking it to a new level.”

You’ll be hard pressed to find any team in America that is playing with more togetherness, unselfishness and joy than Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars.

Twenty six assists on 38 made baskets. Forty eight point wins. A coach who is willing to talk about real-life issues like racism.

Yes, college basketball’s found a more than worthy No. 1 in Houston. One that seems to be getting rightly comfortable where it is. Together.

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