Culture / Sporting Life

The Hype Masters Completely Abandon UH Basketball, But Kelvin Sampson’s Program is Poised to Shake Up the National Landscape Again With a Little Help From Quentin Grimes

Spotlight's Long Gone, But Plenty of Talent and a Special Kansas Transfer Remain

BY // 11.13.19

The national spotlight is long gone, having deserted the best college basketball program in Texas south of Lubbock. All the major preview magazines latched onto Penny Hardaway’s talent grab at Memphis instead. And College GameDay is not rushing to make reservations for a return visit.

None of the local TV sports anchors are here either. Even Fox 26’s Mark Berman, who attends more Houston area sports events than any man past, present or sane ever has, is not in the building for the University of Houston basketball team’s season opener. And forget about those “local” columnists who still need a GPS to locate the Fertitta Center.

Another UH season begins so far under the radar that Russian bots probably couldn’t even locate it.

But Kelvin Sampson’s program, the one that’s gone 60-12 over the last two seasons and advanced farther in the NCAA Tournament than any Texas school besides the power Chris Beard’s built at Texas Tech, is very much still here. And kicking.

UH opens with a 84-56 run over of Alabama State on a cold Tuesday night in Houston that shows some of the trademarks of Sampson’s best Houston team, the one that started 27-1 last season and came within a few whispers of beating Kentucky and advancing to the Elite Eight. Like last year’s history making group, these Cougars will be able to come at teams in waves.

They also have a potential difference making guard in Quentin Grimes, the Kansas transfer whose presence makes this follow-up squad a much more dangerous team. Grimes puts up 13 points, shoots an efficient 5 for 9, grabs three offensive rebounds (a few after seemingly flying in from nowhere) and adds three assists in his Cougars debut.

His plus 24 rating is the highest of the game — and he often looks like the most sure player on the floor.

“He’s one of those guys that’s played in a lot of big games. And while he’s new to us, he’s not new to the moment.” — Kellen Sampson on Quentin Grimes.

But Sampson and his son/rising star lead assistant Kellen Sampson would probably prefer it if people waited a little while to fully notice Grimes — or the team.

“It’s awesome,” Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity of UH’s new reality of being outside of the major sports conversation, both locally and nationally, at the moment. “Sometimes you just kind of want to get with your guys and allow them to be humbled, allow them to go through some growing pains, allow them to have some valleys.

“Maybe being away from the spotlight a little bit, we can just keep working.”

Just don’t be surprised when this UH team is back under the bright lights by March. The cupboard is hardly bare as an Alabama State team that stayed within striking distance of No. 8 Gonzaga in the second half (albeit, before eventually losing by 31 points) found out.

UH’s Wave

DeJon Jarreau, the pogo stick 6-foot-5 point guard, does not completely look like himself in the season opener. Jarreau’s only been able to work out four times since October 8 after breaking his hand. The rust understandably shows, but so do a few of the drives and dishes that make him such a difference maker for these Cougars.

Sophomore forward Nate Hinton, arguably the most naturally talented player on the roster, also has something of an off game, especially as the head of trapping defense that should be a weapon for these long and athletic Coogs. Yet, Hinton still finishes with a plus 20 rating for the night.

In all, nine Cougars play at least 11 minutes, including two true freshmen guards, Caleb Mills and Marcus Sasser, who will be relied on for some outside shooting and playmaking. Mills puts up four assists and Sasser hits four threes, scoring 14 points in only 15 minutes.

Then, there is Grimes, the former five star recruit from The Woodlands who left Bill Self’s powerhouse Kansas program for the less glitzy environment on Cullen Boulevard.

“I thought he was a steadying force,” Kellen Sampson says of Grimes. “He’s one of those guys that’s played in a lot of big games. And while he’s new to us, he’s not new to the moment.”

Sampson leans against a wall outside the Cougars locker room as he talks, still wearing the sharp suit and tie he coached in. It’s more of a surprise that the patriarch of this Houston program keeps his red tie on all night as well. Kelvin Sampson is overall, incredibly calm for game No. 1.

This coaching lifer knows better than anyone that he’s not pushing Corey Davis and Galen Robinson Jr., the elite backcourt of last year’s 33-4 team, anymore. This team may actually require a (at least slightly) gentler hand from the man who more than earned a new $18 million contract last offseason that should have him finishing his career with a long run in Houston.

Yes, a milder Kelvin Sampson is a thing. It just sometimes creates an internal struggle on the bench within the head man.

“I had to remind myself, ‘Be patient with this bunch,’ ” Kelvin Sampson says. “There are a lot of young guys out there.”

In a very young college basketball season that’s already been ripe with upsets — including No. 1 Kentucky falling to Evansville at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night — leading a team like Alabama State by 35 points with less than two minutes left maybe shouldn’t be expected.

But it is. Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars have a pedigree now.

“When you play these games, there’s such an assumption of who’s going to win,” Kelvin Sampson says, “that really shouldn’t happen. Basketball’s not football. Evansville beat Kentucky tonight — big upset. But it’s basketball.”

These Cougars never let the thought of the unexpected marinate in their season opener, though. Not with energizing forward Justin Gorham playing his first real game in more than 20 months with a passion that comes through on almost every play. Not with Grimes shifting the equation.

“I think the biggest thing is — well, obviously you’ve got a really good player on your roster — but it allows us to be what we’ve been the last two years,” Kellen Sampson says of Grimes’ presence — and immediate eligibility. “By adding Q, it allows us to keep coming at people in waves.

“It makes Mills and Sasser’s life a little bit easier as true freshmen. They can just kind of find their role, find their lanes, find their grooves.”

This UH team is not rolling yet. But it shouldn’t be. It’s barely mid November. The spotlight may be long gone for now, but don’t be surprised when it finds its way back. For the standard has not changed.

The second best college basketball program in Texas is not looking to step back.

That is clear on opening night — no matter who isn’t there.

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