Culture / Sporting Life

Jay Bilas Wowed by “Ridiculously Good” Houston, Impressed by Fertitta Center Atmosphere — Inside Another Spotlight Statement Night For Kelvin Sampson’s Program

How Marcus Sasser, Taze Moore and Kyler Edwards Took Apart Virginia and Added Plenty of National Believers

BY // 11.17.21

On his way out of the Fertitta Center, Jay Bilas stops to take a few photos with Houston fans — and to marvel over the defensive performance he just witnessed. And the believers in red who cheered it on in the University of Houston’s still relatively newly reimagined on-campus arena.

“I thought it was great,” Bilas tells PaperCity when I ask him of his impressions of the Fertitta Center’s atmosphere. “I think it’s a great place. And they appreciate hard playing teams. And this is a hard playing team. That was as good a defensive performance as I think you can see.”

ESPN’s most influential college basketball voice made it to the Fertitta Center because Kelvin Sampson’s turned Houston into an important spot on the college basketball map. A November home game against the Virginia program that won the national championship just three years ago is another showcase moment for UH basketball and the university as a whole. The Cougars turning it into a dominant, wire-to-wire 67-47 win only makes it that much more significant.

Just ask the guy used to calling games at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Pauley Pavilion, Rupp Arena, Allen Fieldhouse and other traditional college basketball hotbeds.

“It’s been a long time since somebody’s turned Virginia over like that,” Bilas tells me. “They don’t turn it over 18 times per game or whatever it was. Seventeen. I think the last time they turned it over 20 in a game was 2015, and they almost did that in this one.

“And I was most impressed with Taze Moore. I thought he was spectacular. For them to take (Virginia guard Armaan) Franklin essentially out of the game. . . They didn’t allow a three in the second half. That was a stellar defensive effort. I was really impressed.”

Yes, Bilas singles out Taze Moore, the ultra athletic transfer from Cal State Bakersfield, who finishes with a game-best plus 23 rating, but puts up modest counting stats (five points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals) — and his third highlight dunk in three games. Bilas is most wowed by the way Moore stays with Franklin, the talented Indiana transfer who hit five 3-pointers in Virginia’s previous game.

“They’re good. They’re legit. Like Houston, they’ve got new pieces so it takes some time for that to come together. But this is a damn good start. They’re ridiculously good.” — ESPN’s Jay Bilas

On the night when Sampson’s team shows the nation that its Final Four follow up season could be a special one of its own, plenty of Cougars stand out. Marcus Sasser seizes another big game almost from the opening tip and Kyler Edwards, the other transfer in Sampson’s starting lineup with Maze, finds the openings in Virginia’s vaunted Pack Line defense.

“They have that ability to go by you, hit the open shot and then create their own,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett says. “You could see that with Sasser in the first couple of games. It’s ridiculous how quick he is. And I thought at times, we stayed in front of him well, but he could just create space and rise up.

“Obviously they both could do that. And that was a problem for us.”

The University of Houston Cougars basketball team defeated the Virginia Cavaliers at the Fertitta Center
Marcus Sasser is all about seizing the moment in big games. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

No. 15 and now 3-0 Houston’s game plan also turns into a problem for their ACC foe. By pushing the pace, taking advantage of transition opportunities and creating havoc with their quick hands on defense, UH is able to score early before that Pack Line defense can get set. The Cougars outscore Virginia 16-4 in fast break points, a testament to the often overlooked scouting prowess of Kelvin Sampson and his staff. Particularly Kellen Sampson, Quannas White and K.C. Beard.

Jay Bilas on Kelvin Sampson and a Hall of Fame Effort

Houston is not just one of the hardest playing teams in America. It’s also one of the best prepared. Game after game after game. From the jump on this night, it is apparent that Sasser and Co. are ready for everything that Virginia is going to show them.

“Kelvin Sampson’s a Hall of Fame coach,” Bilas tells PaperCity.  “He should be — and I think he will be — in the Naismith Hall of Fame. That’s how good he is.”

Houston does not run like this every game. But against a Virginia program that likes to play as deliberately as the DMV sloths in Zootopia, Sampson has his guys push the pace and attack early in the shot clock. This does not happen by accident. Sampson sometimes has his team play offense with a 10 second shot clock in practice to drive home the lesson that an early shot is sometimes the best — and most open — shot.

“We’ll put 10 seconds on the shot clock after a defensive rebound,” Sampson says of the practice drill. “And we try to get as good a look as we can in those 10 seconds. . . We have to realize after a missed shot, which 10 of (the 30 second shot clock) do you want to get your shot in. We want to get a shot in the first 10.

“Now, we’ve got the defense backpedaling and if we’re spaced — if we can get into the corners and get the ball into the paint, whether it’s with the pass or the dribble, now we can do something.”

The Cougars do plenty of somethings to an ACC power on this night. No one should be surprised that UH can take apart another powerhouse program when it’s on its game at this point. But that does not make it any less impressive.

And it does not make this scene — a sellout crowd of 7,051, a giant red “Whose House? Coogs House!” banner going up the stands in the second half, ESPN’s No. 1 college basketball announcing team in the building (Dan Shulman is here too), the always stylish Tony Bennett on the other bench, wondering what he signed up for — any less important. This is the type of moment that can pay off down the road in March.

“I know we say this a lot, but this doesn’t happen without Coach Sampson,” UH athletic director Chris Pezman tells PaperCity in a side hallway before the madness begins. “The thought of getting teams like UVA, Oregon and LSU to come through here, it’s a testament to the continued growth of the program.

“It gets hard when you’re trying to schedule non-conference games, and games that mean something towards the end of the season positioning and seeding.”

Marcus Sasser and Creating Their Own Showcase

Sampson’s program turns an otherwise quiet Tuesday night in Houston into an event night. Even if some are quicker to recognize it than others. Good luck getting the local newspaper to send a columnist out before March. But KTRK Channel 13 lead sports anchor Greg Bailey and KPRC Channel 2 lead sports anchor Randy McIlvoy both do live standups from the Fertitta Center. And KHOU Channel 11’s Jason Bristol leads his sportscast with UH too.

These kind of things matter just like Bilas’ presence does. Kelvin Sampson’s made the University of Houston into one of the more relevant programs in America, both nationally and locally.

It’s about creating — and grabbing moments. Something Sasser, who did everything he could to seize that Final Four game against Baylor, certainly understands. When the lights get brighter, this former mere three star recruit who Kelvin Sampson saw something special in that the traditional power programs missed, raises his game.

“It was an NCAA Tournament game,” Sasser says of this Virginia game. “Two powerhouses schools. I feel like the crowd really helped us.”

And the Cougars’ opening statement also juices the crowd. Kelvin Sampson’s team jumps out to a 14-2 lead and keeps the pressure on all game. The Cougars also hit their threes against the compacted defense, particularly Kyler Edwards. Finding open spots on the wings and corners, the Texas Tech transfer drains five of his six shots from distance.

No one should be surprised that UH can take apart another powerhouse program when it’s on its game at this point. But that does not make it any less impressive. This is the type of moment that can pay off down the road in March.

It is a near clinic on how to attack Virginia — though to be fair this is a 1-2 Tony Bennett team that is still trying to figure what it can be this season.

“Maybe we’ll play some teams that are as good defensively,” Bennett says. “I don’t know if we’ll play many better than this. Because they’re special that way. They’re just good all around.

“. . . Came in here and got our ears pinned back.”

The University of Houston Cougars basketball team defeated the Virginia Cavaliers at the Fertitta Center
Kyler Edwards hit five 3-pointers against Virginia. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Virginia never holds the lead in this game. Not for a single second. Sasser (19 points, four assists, three steals), Edwards (18 points), Moore, big man transfer Josh Carlton (seven points, five rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in 21 tantalizing minutes) and Fabian White Jr. (six points, eight rebounds, two blocks) refuse to ever let the Cavaliers settle into the game.

Instead, Jay Bilas finds himself calling a blowout. Another statement game for this UH program. And when the former Duke basketball player turned attorney and TV sports star unfurls his 6-foot-8 frame from his front row seat, he sounds like a believer too.

“(Sampson) builds a culture of toughness and defense and rebounding,” Bilas says. “But they score too. We talk about their defense because it’s so difficult to do it that way. But they can score. And I tell you one thing, you’d better be in shape to play for these guys.

“Because you gotta run. They’re chasing screens. And their big guys are mobile. They’re good. They’re legit. Like Houston, they’ve got new pieces so it takes some time for that to come together. But this is a damn good start. They’re ridiculously good.”

With that, Jay Bilas is heading into a warm Houston night, bag over his shoulder, tie still neatly knotted. He’ll be going to another college basketball hotbed next, trying to find more teams that impress him as much as this Houston one already has early in the season.

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