Culture / Sporting Life

JoJo Tugler Gives Houston a Big Block Glimpse as LJ Cryer’s Steady Cool & Jamal Shead’s Belief Win Out — Kelvin Sampson’s New X-Factor Ups a Top 10 Team’s Ceiling

Inside the Win at Xavier and What It Says About The Coogs' Future

BY // 12.02.23

CINCINNATI — In a game in which easy baskets are as hard to find as an ancient relic in an Indiana Jones movie, Gylis Nemeiksa is sure he has a bunny. There is nothing between the Xavier forward and a wide open rim — and a long-awaited lead for his team. But wait. . . there’s JoJo Tugler, the University of Houston’s true freshman with the 7-foot-6 wingspan, coming out of nowhere, turning Nemeiksa’s easy bucket into a long limbed nightmare.

“Wooooo!” UH point guard Jamal Shead practically whistles when I ask him about the Tugler block that many of the Cougars leave Xavier’s arena buzzing over. “That kid’s special. When he learns how to stop grabbing people all the time, he’s going to be really good. He did a lot of things good today and made a lot of big-time plays that we really needed from him.

“And he’s going to do nothing but grow.”

This game is another winning growth step for Kelvin Sampson’s latest UH national championship contender. In the Cougars’ first real road test of the season, with the referees calling fouls at a rate that would make the most zealous tax auditor blush (try 50 fouls in 40 minutes, including 27 on the Coogs), with a packed crowd seemingly on top of them, with their lifeline point guard stuck sitting by Sampson, this still building team finds a way. The final ends up being Houston 66, Xavier 60 with the Cougars outscoring the Musketeers 14-8 to close after the foul-hounded Shead returns with 6:34 remaining.

The No. 6 team in America is still undefeated (a perfect 8-0) because LJ Cryer is as steady as a heartbeat. Cryer, the talented Baylor transfer who knows something about hostile arenas, scores 23 points and hits half of his shots (8 of 16, including 5 of 12 3 pointers) on a night when everyone else on the floor for both teams misses a combined 31 of 40 attempts in the second half.

While everyone else plays a game that James Naismith might actually recognize from the brutal peach basket days, Cryer finds a way to rise above and deliver some steady offense. It is far from a perfect game for Cryer, but compared to what everyone else is doing, it looks like he’s painting a Picasso.

“I definitely like playing on the road,” Cryer tells PaperCity. “You get a little jittery feeling, a little buzz playing on the road. You just got to experience it for yourself.”

JoJo Tugler does for the first time on this night, with the talented 18-year-old who is destined to determine some of this otherwise experienced team’s ultimate ceiling, living both the good (six rebounds and six points in six critical high-energy first half minutes, that eraser block late) and the bad (three fouls in six and a half second half minutes).

“It’s just going to take him a while,” Sampson says of Tugler. “You’ve just got to be patient with JoJo. We elected to go with him. He did a lot of good things tonight. He was an advantage in some ways and a disadvantage in others. The way they ran their offense, they tricked him a couple of times. But it ain’t hard to trick JoJo right now.

“His inexperience really jumps out. I was worried about that. But he needs to go through it. We can’t not play him. He needs to go through it. His failures and his mistakes are all good. That will help him the next time we go on the road. We’ll be able to sit down and watch film with him, show him the things he didn’t do good.”

The JoJo Tugler Plan

Kelvin Sampson knows he is building a team for March not early December. And what comes through in every conversation with Sampson involving JoJo Tugler, even when he stone faced deadpans about Tugler being “great at fouling right now” is how much UH’s basketball lifer of a coach believes in the young freshman. Sampson knows that JoJo Tugler can be a difference maker. Sampson is determined to get him there.

In many ways, that from nowhere block is a preview of what’s coming.

“That’s JoJo,” Cryer says when I ask about the block. “JoJo does that at practice all the time. It didn’t surprise me. The past couple of games, JoJo’s been dealing with a back issue, so his production’s been down. But he’s healthy now.”

So is this Houston’s team sense of finding ways to win. When Shead picks up his fourth foul with 13:46 left in the game, Xavier and the 10,472 fans filling the Cintas Center on a Friday night in Cincinnati smell blood like a movie shark. UH will lose every bit of its nine point lead before Shead can return, but Cryer, fellow guard Emanuel Sharp and forward J’Wan Roberts never let the game go. All three play at least 19 minutes in the second half, with Cryer logging all 20.

Roberts grabs 10 of his 12 rebounds after halftime, reversing an unexpected Xavier rebounding blitz in the first half. Sharp finds a way to put up 10 points, four assists and three steals on a night when his usually reliable jumper completely abandons him. Shead can almost feel his guys growing even as he bides time on the bench.

“It’s not really hard when you trust your guys,” Shead tells PaperCity of sitting with the four fouls. “I’ve got complete confidence in our guard group. . . I thought they did a great job. We’re going to do nothing but get better because they’re going to learn to play without me and some games will be like this.”

Yes, the unforgiving relentless rigors of a Big 12 season and the unpredictability of March Madness still beckon down the road for this trophy hunting Houston team.

“LJ’s been in so many battles when he was at Baylor. I feel like this isn’t new to any of us. (Temple transfer) Damian (Dunn’s) been the person that has sent a lot of people home. I think we’re meant for these moments. I think we’re built for these moments.” — UH point guard Jamal Shead on the win at Xavier

University of Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson coached the Cougars to a big win over the Montana Griz, Friday afternoon at the Fertitta Center,
University of Houston guard LJ Cryer is one of the best scorers in America. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

This win over 4-4 Xavier is officially part of the Big East-Big 12 Battle series, but it’s really just another step. Albeit, a little bigger one than usual. Where the blocks are wild. And maybe a preview of what is coming from an 18-year-old just starting to find his way. One whose elders are more than capable of doing the heavy lifting when needed.

“That kid’s special. When he learns how to stop grabbing people all the time, he’s going to be really good. He did a lot of things good today and made a lot of big-time plays that we really needed from him.” — Jamal Shead on freshman JoJo Tugler

When UH associate head coach Quannas White passes LJ Cryer talking to a reporter in the hallway on the way to the bus, White calls out “Ask him why he made me recruit him so hard in high school.” Cryer grins. He turned the Cougars down then, but he’s right where he wants to be now. Winning big games even when everyone else’s offense seems to have absconded to some undisclosed location.

“LJ’s been in so many battles when he was at Baylor,” Shead says. “I feel like this isn’t new to any of us. (Temple transfer) Damian (Dunn’s) been the person that has sent a lot of people home. I think we’re meant for these moments. I think we’re built for these moments.

“And I think we’re going to do nothing but grow from here.”

Shead is talking in a largely empty arena, one his Cougars cleared out first. A happy flight home awaits. It’s good to be road warrior in Kelvin Sampson’s program. Even the 18-year-old with the endless arms has already learned that.

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