Culture / Sporting Life

Jarace Walker, Houston Make a Leap With Sampson School — Winning at No. 2 Virginia Becomes a Testament to Teamwork Over Hero Ball

How UH Went From the Low of the Alabama Loss to One Of the Biggest Wins Any Team Has This Season In a Week

BY // 12.18.22

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — As the noise grows louder and louder, as everyone in Virginia’s ACC palace seems to take their feet, Jarace Walker almost smiles to himself. The University of Houston’s freshman forward isn’t weighed down by all the expectations that always seem to swirl around him. He’s just enjoying the moment.

“I love it.” Walker says when I ask him about the 14,500-plus fans packed into John Paul Jones Arena rooting for him to fail. “Just the atmosphere of it. The noise of the fans. Just knowing everybody’s against you.

“It’s a dope environment to play in.”

It is even better to win in. That’s what Walker and his UH teammates do. Together. They beat No. 2 Virginia 69-61, become the first University of Houston team to ever topple such a highly-ranked foe in a true road game. Yes, neither Elvin or Hakeem ever achieved such a feat.

Walker and his teammates do it by leaning on each other, by refusing to give in to all the noise. Or any of the doubts.

“I feel like after we lost to Alabama, people kind of doubted us,” UH guard Marcus Sasser says. “. . . Didn’t think we even deserved to be where we were (ranked). I think it’s a win to show that we are capable in being one of the top teams in the nation.”

On a Super Saturday that sees Top 10 matchups play out across the country, No. 5 (for now) Houston may show more than anyone. After moving to 11-1 and handing the ACC’s highest-ranked team its first loss of the season, Kelvin Sampson’s team is sure to move up in the polls again when they’re released on Monday.

But this isn’t about that. Instead, it is about Walker seizing the game, playing like a star. At his teammates’ urging. Instead, it is about Tramon Mark letting the game come to him, being patient enough to let his guys set him up rather than trying to do it all himself. Instead, it is about Houston’s young and older guys coming together in the cauldron of a Top 5 showdown in a lit arena.

Which is harder than you may think for the most talented of players, many who grew up worshipping at the altar of Hero Ball.

“Guys they all think they’re Superman,” Kelvin Sampson says. “It’s not about being a Superman. It’s about playing on a super team.”

UH started to look like that kind of team in the land of Thomas Jefferson. Jarace Walker takes over the game in the second half, scoring 13 of his 17 points after the break. He starts by bullying inside for a traditional 3-point play, adds two 3-pointers and finishes off the Cavaliers with a stepback jumper that is so sweet — and pro level worthy — that it leaves Virginia coach Tony Bennett invoking the name of legendary big man shooter Dirk Nowitzki.

The #1 ranked University of Houston Cougars were beaten by the #4 ranked Alabama CrimsonTide at the Fertitta Center
UH guard Tramon Mark has expanded his range with a rebuilt jumper. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

But despite Walker’s brilliance, Tramon Mark still hits the biggest shot of the game, a a 3-pointer off a Walker pass out of the post that puts Houston up 59-50 after Virginia cut it to six one last time and the crowd reached a new crescendo. Mark scores 11 points in the second half himself, almost quietly killing the nation’s No. 2 team amid Walker’s loud breakout bonanza.

“It’s so opposite of the way he played in high school,” Sampson says outside the press room when I ask him about Mark waiting outside the arc for the ball to swing to him and calmly stepping into two huge threes. “Basketball’s not always a game of one on one. That was my biggest challenge with Damyean Dotson. That was my biggest challenge with Quentin (Grimes). He just wanted to play one-on-one.

“Sometimes you’ve got to let your teammates get you the shot by being in the right spot. We worked a lot on spacing. We weren’t very good at that in October.”

But Kelvin Sampson’s teams almost always get better during the course of the season. Often significantly better. This is why ESPN’s lead college basketball voice Jay Bilas tells PaperCity that he is intrigued by Houston’s upside.

It sounds like a funny thing to say about a team that is already ranked in the Top 5, a team that’s sprinted off to an 11-1  record. Then again, you can see it happening in this Virginia game. Sampson’s team is already much better, more ready for the moment, than it was in that home loss to Alabama just a week ago.

“They may be the best defensive team in the country,” Bilas tells PaperCity. “And they rebound well… I think they’re evolving offensively. I think they’re going to get better as they integrate a lot of new players. I like their upside.”

Eleven and one with a growth plan? Believe it. Virginia certainly does. More importantly, the UH players do.

“I mean, I know it’s a big win,” Walker says with a grin. “But I wouldn’t say a statement. Because it’s kind of what we expected to do. The preparation we put in and the hard work on the scout. How locked in we were.

“It’s nothing that we didn’t expect.”

Speaking of that scout, several Cougars cite the scouting report that Houston assistant coach Kellen Sampson put together as a major factor in this signature victory. Guards Jamal Shead and Marcus Sasser each bring it up more than once. The report is ready for UH’s players the first time the team meets after the Alabama game. Even though Houston played North Carolina AT&T in-between the Alabama and Virginia games, Kelvin Sampson and his staff spent the entire week specifically preparing for Tony Bennett’s team.

That shows on Super Saturday. So does the development of the 19-year-old Walker.

“It’s not about being a Superman. It’s about playing on a super team.” — UH coach Kelvin Sampson

Jarace Walker Embraces Sampson School

Walker swears that he can already see the difference gong to Sampson School is making in his game.

“I feel like that just comes from mistakes,” Walker says. “Just learning from all the mistakes I made earlier in the season. I feel like once I just get over that bump, I’ll be good to go.”

This rare already built 6-foot-8 inside-outside threat with a nice passing touch is plenty good right now. And he only figures to continue to get better. Teammates like Jamal Shead, the clear vocal leader of this team, are encouraging Walker to be more assertive, knowing it makes UH much more dangerous.

“It opens up the court,” Shead says. “When he gets comfortable with himself, it opens up so much for everybody else.”

With Walker and J’Wan Roberts passing out of the post, setting up open jumpers, Houston is starting to look like the offense it can become. Even falling down 9-0 in this game does not faze this newly resolute UH team. Instead, the Cougars outscore the Cavaliers 30-15 the rest of the first half, grabbing the game by staying together.

There are LegoLand displays that aren’t this well stuck together.

Sampson School. It makes you learn quick.

“I feel like without the Alabama game, we probably wouldn’t have won this game,” says Sasser, who hits three 3-pointers and gets a number of open looks in that first half spree. “We needed the Alabama game to get us right, change defenses, change offense, humble us again.”

“Maturity,” Roberts says simply when talking about the difference between the Alabama and Virginia games, a difference that seems bigger than a week.

The most talented UH team Kelvin Sampson has ever had is already making a leap. That is something that should make the rest of the other legit national title contenders worry.

Against Virginia, jump man center Ja’Vier Francis and 3-point gunner Emanuel Sharp are the first two UH players off the bench and senior forward Reggie Chaney is the only other Cougar reserve who gets on the court. Kelvin Sampson pares down his rotation to go big win hunting, leaning on Marcus Sasser to play 39 of the 40 minutes and Walker to log 38 of 40.

The University of Houston Cougars beat the North Carolina A&T Aggies at the Fertitta Center
UH forward Jarace Walker knows how to finish. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

“Doubters or not, we’ve got to stick together to be the team we want to be,” Shead says, who hits a driving layup the first time the Cavaliers cut UH’s lead to six points inside of four minutes.

John Paul Jones Arena (it is named after a rich UVA donor’s father not the Led Zeppelin bassist) is rocking, but Kelvin Sampson’s team is not cracking or splitting apart. The 2019 national championship banner is hanging up there in the rafters and programs like North Carolina and Duke have lost big games in this building.

On this Super Saturday, Sasser, Shead, Walker, Mark and Roberts are unfazed. Ready for the moment.

Sampson School. It makes you learn quick.

“I mean, I know it’s a big win. But I wouldn’t say a statement. Because it’s kind of what we expected to do.” — UH freshman Jarace Walker

It fittingly ends with Jarace Walker dribbling out the clock, with the Cougars exchanging high fives and bumps but going anything but crazy.

This is as big as regular season wins get in college basketball. But Jarace Walker still scuffles off to the bus, wearing Nike slides with no socks on a 40 degree Virginia evening. Walker looks like the big college kid he is. Just don’t try and tell the soon-to-be formerly No. 2 team in America there is anything kid like about him.

For Jarace Walker grabbed this game as ruthlessly as an eagle plucks a trout out of the water. With his teammates urging him to do it.

“I feel like our offense got a little stagnant,” Walker says. “So when the ball’s in my hand, I feel like I need to make something happen.”

He did. They all did. And in many ways, this 11-1 Houston team is only getting started. After all, Sampson School is still very much in session.