Culture / Sporting Life

Why Jamal Shead and College Basketball’s Last Undefeated Team Are Already Big 12 Scary — Houston Slam Dunks the Doubters, Wows Brett Yormark and Fires On

So Much For Kelvin Sampson's Elite Top 10 Program Needing an Adjustment Period

BY // 01.07.24

West Virginia coach Josh Eilert stops University of Houston point guard Jamal Shead on the way to the interview room and pulls him into a quick bro hug for a word. “I don’t want to see you guys again,” Eilert tells Shead, drawing a grin.

Much of the rest of the Big 12 soon could be feeling the same way. For Shead and Kelvin Sampson’s powerhouse Houston basketball program make a statement in their first game in UH’s new Power 5 conference, absolutely destroying West Virginia 89-55 in front of a frenzied and appreciative Fertitta Center home crowd. Playing its most complete game of the season, the No. 3 ranked team in America shows as much mercy to West Virginia as a kid picking the wings off an insect. Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark, new Houston Mayor John Whitmire, Top 75 NBA player Coog Elvin Hayes (at the Whose House mic too in addition to the radio one), Cougars turned Texans lifeline receiver Tank Dell, program building anchor Fabian White Jr., UH president and Fertitta regular Renu Khator and just about every other power player who can get a good seat are in the building, but Kelvin Sampson’s team does not need any help in bringing the energy.

These Cougars have internal combustion engines that always run hot — and West Virginia is knocked back by the fiery intensity Houston starts with from the opening tip. During one early timeout after a Jamal Shead flush dunk, UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson pounds the floor so hard in excitement that you can hear the smacks 25 rows up.

Led by the elite experienced backcourt of Shead and Baylor transfer LJ Cryer, who both post matching game-high plus 29 plus/minus ratings, Sampson’s team gets almost any shot it wants, racking up 13 layups and six dunks (many of those highlight worthy) among its 34 made field goals. From the opening bucket — a Ja’Vier Francis throw-down slam off the first of Shead’s 11 assists — to the penultimate one (a Mylik Wilson corner 3 off a crisp, selfless Ryan Elvin ball movement pass), these Cougars play with the efficient, assured swagger of one of the very best teams in America.

Make that the last undefeated team remaining in America. Yes, Houston is now the only team still standing in college basketball without a single loss.

“We understand that we’re pretty good,” Shead tells PaperCity. “But we understand that we can get better. . . We work so hard that it has to pay off at some point. We have to have a little swagger to ourselves just because of how hard we work.”

This is how these Cougars let loose from the relentless practice demands and unforgiving expectations of Kelvin Sampson. They take apart someone else’s team in a game.

No pity. No letup. Nothing but elite. And maybe, just maybe, the very best team in the very best basketball conference in the land.

West Virginia (5-9) is not a Big 12 contender, or even close to to it. But Mountaineers interim coach Josh Eilert certainly knows this league of giants and superpowers. Eilert coached on Bob Huggins’ Kansas State and West Virginia staffs for 17 seasons. He knows an elite Big 12 team when he sees one — and he certainly thinks he sees one in now 14-0 Houston.

“One hundred percent their defense is going to carry them,” Eilert says. “They very well could win this league going away.”

No. 2 Kansas will have something to say about that. Not to mention 13-1 Oklahoma, 12-2 Baylor, 12-2 Texas Tech and an 11-3 TCU team that took Kansas down to the wire in Allen Fieldhouse. Still, this is a Houston team that almost seems built for the challenges to come.

“They’re certainly ready to go play,” Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “There’s been enough healthy dialogue behind the scenes on what we’re building for. We’re ready to see where we’re at. We’re certainly bound to be exposed in some areas. And that’s not always a bad thing.

“But you know, the expectations around here are always about March and April. We’re excited about the opportunity to certainly play in the Big 12 and see where we’re at against the best teams in America. But all of it is hopefully with the idea in the mind that we’re going t0 try and arm ourselves to be the best version of ourselves in March.”

“I thought Jamal was outstanding at that. He was a maestro.” — UH coach Kelvin Sampson on his point guard

In its first Big XII contest, the University of Houston Cougars beat the University of West Virginia Mountaineers at the Fertitta Center
Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark (suit) took in UH’s conference opener and the Fertitta Center mania. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

It is already becoming apparent that this is a UH team that loves the bright lights. One that relishes the idea of going against the best with its best and seeing who emerges still shouting. In many ways, that starts with Jamal Shead too. Houston’s version of the Point God is both Chris Paul and Hakeem Olajuwon against West Virginia. In addition to those 11 assists against one turnover, the 6-foot-1 Shead racks up four blocks, compensating for anything he lacks in height with perfect positioning and an uncanny ability to anticipate an opponent’s move.

This is Jamal Shead, Big 12 unleashed. Pushing the pace and creating in the open court.

“I thought Jamal was outstanding at that,” Kelvin Sampson says. “He was a maestro.”

UH’s 68-year-old basketball lifer of a coach traces the evolution of this Jamal Shead all the way back to the point guard’s freshman year. That was Sampson’s Houston Final Four team, packed with talent and competitors who’d fight for the tiniest scrap. The leaders of that team — Quentin Grimes, DeJon Jarreau and Marcus Sasser — each came up to Sampson individually in February of that dream season and told him how good Shead was going to be.

Game recognizes game. Heart sees heart. And Houston’s best players on that Final Four squad saw potential future greatness in a lightly-regarded three star recruit from Manor, Texas before anyone else did.

You’d better believe that guy is ready for the Big 12 opener — and everything else that is coming.

“I think our kids have always had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder here,” Kelvin Sampson says. “Because we’ve had to get some of even our own fans to understand we’re pretty good. You know. They were so bad for so long that some of them still haven’t figured it out. But our kids have. And our coaches have.

“We know who we are.  We know what we’re capable of doing.”

In its first Big XII contest, the University of Houston Cougars beat the University of West Virginia Mountaineers at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston assistant coach Kellen Sampson is as intense a sideline force as you’ll ever see. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Fitting Right In the Big 12 Land of Superpowers

With Shead and Cryer together, already somehow playing off one another like seasoned bridge partners who know just what move the other is going to do two steps ahead of time, that bar for one of the Top 10 every year programs in America may be rising even higher. Cryer puts up 20 points so smoothly and efficiently (just 12 shots) against West Virginia that you sometimes barely notice how much he is completely impacting the game as he glides around, losing defenders with a sudden dart here and a feint there. There are runaway cats, squeezing through the smallest openings, who are easier to corral than LJ Cryer.

Shead notices other team’s losing track of Houston’s leading scorer too. Especially when these Cougars push the pace. Which causes opposing teams to feel the panic of a parent who loses sight of their kid in the mall. For when you misplace LJ Cryer, you’re giving up a probable bucket.

“We’re pretty small,” Shead tells PaperCity. “Guys like LJ can get lost in transition. Emanuel (Sharp) can get lost in transition. We’re as good as anybody in transition. When we can get out — when we rebound and get out — we can be one of the best in the country in transition.”

This Houston team is also one of the best at meeting the moment, a hallmark of Kelvin Sampson’s Cougar squads. And with the noise level approaching deafening at times court side in this Big 12 opener, Shead, Cryer, Sharp (eight points, seven rebounds, three steals and shut down defense on West Virginia lifeline scorer RaeQuan Battle), Damian Dunn (14 points off the bench) and Co. certainly grab this Big 12 opener with an opportunistic ferocity that makes a big-time setting seem even larger.

No pity. No letup. Nothing but elite.

“Great atmosphere,” Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark tells PaperCity about his first Fertitta game. “Great experience. We’re blessed to have Houston in the conference. It makes us so much stronger from a basketball perspective. No. 1 conference in America. The team played incredibly well today. And just blessed to be here.”

Yormark is in the front row, standing out in a designer suit fit for Savile Row, next to his equally stylish wife Elaina. But the truth is that University of Houston basketball has been big time for a long while now — and Kelvin Sampson’s program doesn’t need any of this extra fanfare to validate itself. That is the stuff of upstarts and wanna bes.

“I just don’t spend a lot of time with the hoopla stuff,” Kelvin Sampson says.

“One hundred percent their defense is going to carry them. They very well could win this league going away.” — West Virginia coach Josh Eilert on undefeated Houston

In its first Big XII contest, the University of Houston Cougars beat the University of West Virginia Mountaineers at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston guard Emanuel Sharp has brought his defense to a new level. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

This is already one of Top 10 basketball programs in all of America. Sampson’s Cougars add as much to the Big 12 as it brings to them. Yormark is right on that score.

As for the other scores on this opener? Just a little more something for Big 12 teams that assumed (or hoped) that Kelvin Sampson’s UH program might need just a little bit of acclimation time to the conference of superpowers to think about.

“It’s kind of like a new season for us,” Dunn tells PaperCity of Big 12 play, which continues Tuesday night at a dangerous 11-3 Iowa State team. “But also a chance to kind of like make our stamp across the nation. You know people kind of have questions on whether we can play within the conference.

“. . . We cherish those. And do our best to shine when we get those opportunities.”

No pity. No letup. Nothing but elite.