Culture / Sporting Life

Houston’s Defensive Intimidator — Ja’Vier Francis Doesn’t Just Block Shots, He Gets In Opponents Like TCU’s Minds

When No Layup Is Really Open — Or Easy

BY // 03.15.24

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Ja’Vier Francis is like a mystical horror movie creature that appears in the main characters’ dreams. You can never escape him — even when he’s not really there. Jamie Dixon’s TCU team felt the University of Houston’s center when Francis blocked and altered shots. And when they missed layups at the rim, expecting Francis or power forward J’Wan Roberts to be there.

This the true cruel nature of the No. 1 ranked defense in America. Kelvin Sampson’s best Houston defense ever — as high a bar as you’ll find in college basketball — does not just shut down opponents. It spooks them. It makes team like TCU double think every layup attempt.

“When you start contesting shots, it makes them a little hesitant to shoot again,” Ja’Vier Francis tells PaperCity. “Basically that’s what we’re tying to do.”

This Houston defense is more diabolical than a Mission Impossible villain. Sampson’s Cougars do not just shut opponents down. They get into their heads. TCU fans bemoaning how many layups the Horned Frogs miss in Houston’s 60-45 Big 12 Tournament throttling are missing the real truth. By contesting every single shot they can, by being as disruptive as a pack of wild cats let loose in a ceramics store, Francis, Roberts, Jamal Shead and Friends make opponents think even the easy shots are going to be difficult.

TCU hesitating and double clutching on layups against this now 29-3 Houston team is no coincidence. It is part of the Ja’Vier Francis Effect.

“When we’re at our best, I think we’re the fastest team sideline to sideline in America,” UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “When we’re playing defense to the very best our abilities, no defense is faster sideline to sideline than us. And he’s at the heart of that.

“. . . Ja’s ability to move laterally is what I don’t think people give him enough credit for. His pick and roll defense — which is the reason he didn’t play early in his career because he couldn’t process it and then apply it — is now a huge strength of his.

“He’s forever long at the rim. He blocks the shots. But his ability to sit in a stance, stretch out his arms and stay in front of guards in pick and roll defense is what elevates our defense. And that is what makes our defense the fastest.”

It is almost not fair to have a 6-foot-8 man with a 7-foot-5 wingspan who moves as fast as Ja’Vier Francis does. It’d be like creating a leopard that can fly. The center who so many questioned as he slowly developed over the years — the center who many fans wanted Kelvin Sampson to recruit another Josh Carlton-type over the top of — is, in many ways, the secret sauce of one of college basketball’s most ferocious defenses in a long, long time.

“He erases a lot of mistakes that never even become shots. You guys see shots altered or blocked shots. It’s the shots that don’t even get shot.” — UH assistant Kellen Sampson on Ja’Vier Francis

University of Houston center Ja'Vier Francis is shot blocking game changer. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston center Ja’Vier Francis is shot blocking game changer. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

This Houston defense does not have a fancy nickname like Jerry Tarkanian’s famed Amoeba defense, spearheaded by Stacey Augmon. But it’s just as scary. These Cougars have held its opponent to under 50 points in 10 games this season now. Including two straight Big 12 games (Kansas gets 46 in the regular season finale, TCU struggles to reach 45 in this Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal) heading into Friday night’s Big 12 semifinal matchup against Texas Tech.

Jamal Shead gets five steals against TCU, comes from nowhere to block a 3-pointer in the defensive highlight of the game. But Francis is every bit as responsible for the Horned Frogs falling down 16-0 to start the game and taking nine minutes and 40 seconds to score their first points.

“Just being a menace in the paint,” Roberts says when I ask about Francis’ impact. “Blocking shots. Rebounding. Help side. One on one defense. Just everything. And he just does it with confidence now.”

The most soft-spoken guy on this No. 1 ranked Houston team is the one who haunts would be layup scorers. Ja’Vier Francis just always seems to be there. Contesting. Recovering in a flash. Making anyone who ventures into the paint miserable.

Houston’s Big 12 Tournament Mission and Ja’Vier Francis Erasures

In some ways, this Big 12 Tournament is about checking off some unfinished business for a confident Houston team that is already certain to be a No, 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament when the brackets are revealed Sunday evening. It is about winning in T-Mobil Arena, this Kansas City shop of Houston horrors where UH’s season ended last March thanks to a Miami Sweet 16 upset and in March of 2019 (with another Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky that helped build Tyler Herro’s name). It is also about punishing TCU to complete the task of beating all three teams that beat the Cougars this season in a rematch.

Check. Check.

Of course, this Houston team is always thinking of more. Even down to an eight man rotation due to injuries. Even with some other teams electing to effectively rest for the Big Dance.

“It means something,” reserve guard Mylik Wilson says of the Big 12 Tournament. “Because we don’t want to leave nothing on the table. We don’t want to let anybody be able to say, ‘Y’all won the regular season, but we won the tournament.’

“We’re trying to win it all.”

Houston has held its opponent to under 50 points in 10 games this season now. Including two straight Big 12 games.

These Cougars are doing it by making life miserable for their opponents. By turning defense into the ultimate intimidation tactic. And mind game. In racking up nine blocks (with Francis and Roberts combining for four and Wilson adding three more with his own long arms in a 6-foot-2 guard package) and nine steals (those five from Shead and three from Roberts) against TCU, Kelvin Sampson’s Great Disrupters make the Horned Frogs question everything.

Including seemingly open layups.

“I think Francis changed some shots,” Dixon says.

“He erases a lot of mistakes that never even become shots,” Kellen Sampson says. “You guys see shots altered or blocked shots. It’s the shots that don’t even got shot. That’s why we (force) so many shot clock violations.”

Just ask TCU. Sometimes you see him even when he’s not really there.

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