Culture / Sporting Life

Josh Carlton Fights Big Man Bias, Beat Up Tactics — and Finds His Inner Beast in Houston’s Program of Belief

How Team Sampson Rebuilt This Old School Post Player's Confidence — and How Carlton's Paying It Back With Dominant Stretches

BY // 02.17.22

Being the big man in basketball is not always easy. Teams feel like they need to beat you up to contain you — and refs often let them. Even Shaquille O’Neal complained hard and often about how teams were allowed to foul him repeatedly at LSU without being called for it simply because of his size. Josh Carlton is beginning to be able to relate.

The University of Houston’s big man is no Shaq (no one is), but he’s larger and more skilled than most of the defenders he goes against. And as Carlton’s importance in Houston’s offense has grown, more and more teams have relied on pounding on him, trusting that most of the fouls will go uncalled.

“Last few games, teams are beating up on him pretty good,” UH coach Kelvin Sampson says.

Heading into a 7 pm Wednesday night road game at Tulane, the increased physical play against Carlton is sure to be something UH’s staff emphasizes to the officials. But the soft-spoken Carlton is not much for complaining himself. He’s a throwback of an old school post player in many ways, one who relishes an aspect of the game that many big men have gone away from.

The 6-foot-11 center excels at scoring in the post, doing his damage around the basket, in a game that’s gone increasingly 3-point mad.

“You don’t see it too often,” Carlton says of traditional post play. “Even on the next level, people are mostly playing around from the outside, trying to create shots. But when someone has this (post game), it’s effective and it helps the team.”

Carlton has been a lifeline for these Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark-less Cougars, giving the UH coaching staff an inside force they can build offensive game plans around. When Carlton gets involved and plays well, these depth-lite Cougars can still be a dominant team. There’s even an intimidation factor with Josh Carlton building around the American Athletic Conference.

“He’s a load and a hammer down there,” SMU forward Marcus Weathers says. “He could score every time if he wanted to.”

If he gets the ball in the right positions. When I ask about Carlton, Kelvin Sampson volunteers that UH’s young point guard in on-the-job training Jamal Shead needs to do a better job of getting the ball to Carlton at times. When Carlton gets lost on offense — taking only four shots and scoring just four points in a 10-point loss to Memphis — or can’t stay on the floor, the entire Houston attack can noticeably suffer.

With Sasser in a walking boot, UH is a more post dependent team than it’s ever been before under Sampson. The downside of that is it can be easier for defenses to take away an inside player than a guard who is always touching the ball.

“Of course,” Sampson says when I ask about the difference. “Look what we did to (Ohio State big man) Kaleb Wesson (in the 2019 NCAA Tournament). Look what we did against (super hyped Western Kentucky 7-footer) Charles Bassey (in a Cougars’ romp last season). You can deny those guys the ball.”

It’s up to Shead, Kyler Edwards and Taze Moore to make sure Josh Carlton still gets the ball even with opposing teams putting more and more emphasis on stopping UH’s big man. And it’s up to the referees to not let college basketball turn into the wrestling matches that you rarely see the NBA game devolve into any more.

UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson knows how effective Carlton can be even when a defense is focused on him. It’s one of the reasons that the Cougars coaching staff targeted the UConn big man in the transfer portal from the jump.

“Our Sweet 16 team in 2019, he had two double-doubles against us,” Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “He was a really, really good player. In the conference tournament, he had 15 and 11 (against Houston). Now we won by 40, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t play well.

“He took us to the cleaners. The kid from Ohio State, Kaleb Wesson, didn’t have nearly the success Josh Carlton had against us. And we defended them in the same way. And they had the same level of importance on the scouting report. And we just  couldn’t guard him.”

Like SMU forward Marcus Weathers says, Josh Carlton can almost score every time when he puts his mind to it.

Kellen Sampson, who made the first call to Carlton in his UH recruitment, saw a chance to bring in a new level of big man to the Sampsons’ program. He also knew that the Houston coaches would need to remind Josh Carlton of just how good he can be. On the regular.

UH’s Josh Carlton Confidence Plan

The big man who arrived on Houston’s campus was beaten down by a number of games where he didn’t even get off the bench his senior season at UConn (Carlton is a graduate transfer). When UConn finally made the NCAA Tournament, Carlton only played two minutes in a first round loss. Those bench warmer stints and DNPs, with Coach Danny Hurley shelving the big man in favor of a four guard lineup, ate at Carlton’s confidence.

But the UH coaches saw what he still could be. Once Carlton got on Houston’s campus, Kellen Sampson started reminding him. Of how he put up nine points and 11 rebounds against NBA Rookie of the Year favorite Evan Mobley in a win over USC when Hurley was still playing him early last season. About how Houston, one of the best defensive teams in the country, struggled to guard him in its breakout 33-4 season.

“Like a lot of big kids, he doesn’t always have that innate self confidence,” Kellen Sampson says, “So much a part of it since we got him here was getting his confidence back right.”

Carlton certainly seems to have found it, much like Quentin Grimes rediscovered the game that made him a five star recruit after transferring to Houston from Kansas. Carlton hit 7 of 9 shots against SMU with the Mustangs only able to come back and topple Kelvin Sampson’s team after he fouled out. He dropped a career-high 30 points on a terrorized South Florida team. He put Wichita State’s upset dreams to bed with a 23 point, 11 rebound day.

This is man who now knows what he can do.

“Just learning my place and role in the system as the season’s went on,” Carlton tells PaperCity. “Helping myself feel more comfortable. The guys helping me feel more comfortable. I’ve got more comfortable as the season’s gone on, as things go on.”


“Everybody’s thinking the monster’s dead. No, we’re still the monsters of the league.” — UH center Josh Carlton

The University of Houston Cougars basketball team defeated the Virginia Cavaliers at the Fertitta Center
UConn big man transfer Josh Carlton brings a different skill set to this UH team. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Josh Carlton is not one to seek out attention, but he seems to carefully consider every question I ask in our one-on-one interview. He doesn’t like to talk about himself that much. But he gets more expressive when the subject turns to the team or one his teammates.

Take the notion that built around the college basketball world that Houston would be in serious trouble without Sasser and Mark — and likely to free fall. As logical as the idea seems, it bothered Josh Carlton.

“It’s especially motivating when you go from pretty much the top dog to the underdogs,” Carlton tells PaperCity. “Everybody’s thinking the monster’s dead. No, we’re still the monsters of the league.”

Carlton is determined to keep his 22-4 (11-2 AAC) team roaring. After many practices, he heads straight to the weight room to get in extra lifting to make sure his 245 pound tall frame can take the physical beating that opponents try to give him every game. Carlton will not allow himself to wear down.

He loves this stuff, the hand to hand combat that being a post scorer often takes.

“It’s just what’s most natural to me,” Carlton says. “Playing through the post. Later in my career, I can expand to the perimeter. But for now, no one’s asked me to do it. So I’m just focused on what I do best to help the team.”

UH’s Finishing School

Carlton works with Kellen Sampson and assistant coach K.C. Beard on his post moves and the array of little hook shots he has every day. Kelvin Sampson has insisted he become better at pivoting and the difference in how Josh Carlton moves from the beginning of the season to now is apparent.

To Carlton this constant skill repetition and attention to detail is part of why he wanted to come to Houston. In some ways, he didn’t even what he’d been missing until he got to the Third Ward.

“We work on touch here every day at U of H,” Carlton tells me. “Every day. To really work on that — the repetition every day — has just helped me be more comfortable with my touch. Coming in, I felt like my touch wasn’t there all the way. But working on it throughout the season, I feel like I’m to the point where I’m comfortable with my touch around the rim.”


“He’s a load and a hammer down there. He could score every time if he wanted to.” — SMU forward Marcus Weathers on UH big man Josh Carlton.

In many ways, Houston has become Josh Carlton’s finishing school, helping a traditional big man unlock the dominant player that was always inside him. When Carlton’s family moved from North Carolina to the Washington DC area in part so he could play basketball for the legendary DeMatha Catholic High School program — the home of a long roll call of NBA standouts over the years, from Adrian Dantley and Sidney Lowe to Danny Ferry, Victor Oladipo, Jerami Grant and Markelle Fultz (who Carlton played with and considers a close friend) — he pictured the day he’d be able to dominate a college basketball game.

Now that’s he is there, he’s not about to back down. Or let teams trying to beat him up get him down.

“I always thought I was a high-major big man,” Carlton says. “. . . I was never ranked highly, but I always felt I could compete against highly-ranked guys.”

Josh Carlton is embracing the fight this retooled UH team finds itself in. Just keep pushing him and see what he can do.

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