Culture / Sporting Life

The Real Truth of Kansas Beating Houston — Jamal Shead & Ja’Vier Francis Are More Than All Right and Round One Does Not Decide Anything

The New Big 12 Basketball Power Rivalry Is Just Getting Started

BY // 02.05.24

LAWRENCE, Kansas — JoJo Tugler comes over to talk to a few University of Houston supporters he knows, ends up getting pulled into a hug. “Every game stronger,” he’s told. “Every game stronger.” “No doubt,” Tugler shoots back.

Across the way, Jamal Shead is talking with his family, with the entire crew having made the pilgrimage to historic Allen Fieldhouse. Ja’Vier Francis — the starting center who missed the last 31 minutes of the game after falling and hitting his right hip hard on the floor — grabs one of the waiting pizza boxes and walks to the bus with no noticeable difficulty. (Francis is fine and will not miss any more time.)

This is the scene after Houston’s 78-65 loss to now No. 4 Kansas in the land of Dr, James Naismith. It is hardly panic in Cougar world. Let the most overreactive general sports commentators speculate about Houston being exposed. This now 19-3 Houston team will remain unshaken, tied for first in college basketball’s best conference at the halfway point of the regular season — and still ranked fifth in the nation on this Monday.

“He’s pretty even keel,” Elvin Shead tells PaperCity of his son. “Yeah, he’s pretty even keel. The thought process of the loss is  ‘What could I have done better?’ Or different.

“It’s about looking forward to the next one.”

Shead, Kelvin Sampson and the rest of this proud Houston program seem to realize what the Kansas fans who start chanting “Overrated! Overrated!” with less than a minute less in this Statement Saturday game seem to have missed. Yes, Kansas took it to Sampson’s team, with 7-foot-2 center Hunter Dickinson’s skill overwhelming them more than his size and Aussie sharp shooter Johnny Furphy shocking them by hitting every shot he takes in the first half. But it’s only Round One.

Houston and Kansas will play again at Fertitta Center on March 9, the last day of the regular season. And possibly again in the Big 12 Tournament in nearby Kansas City (which would bring another massive Jayhawks crowd).

This new Big 12 power rivalry is only getting started.

“We don’t have to come back here,” Sampson says. “Don’t forget, they’ve got to come to Fertitta Center too. And there’s nine games (left). So I’m not going to overreact to this.”

This Kansas game concludes one of the tougher two game road swings in America. With the Cougars coming off an overtime win at the University of Texas that required plenty from them emotionally and physically. And then having to turn around and play in college basketball’s version of the original Yankee Stadium, a place where the legends of Wilt Chamberlain, Jo Jo White and Gradey Dick still swirl. A place where the Jayhawks almost never lose. Especially when they’re desperate and deemed an actual home underdog by Las Vegas.

In the NBA, they’d call this something of a schedule loss, as predictable as a Taylor Swift Super Bowl question. But in college basketball, you’re supposed to pretend those don’t exist.

Kelvin Sampson isn’t much for pretending. And as water continues to steadily spit out of Kansas’ gray skies (it turns out Kansas is a lot like Seattle in the winter, only with much less to do), outside the arena doors, Houston’s basketball lifer of a coach doesn’t try to manufacture doom and gloom of his own.

“We’ve got a good team,” Sampson says. “A really good team. We just don’t have a great team.”

There are no higher plane great teams in college basketball this season. And no settings as hostile as here (the pool in Night Swim is more hospitable than Phog) in the NCAA Tournament. Everyone’s favorite No. 1 Connecticut already lost in Allen Fieldhouse this season. Baylor’s 2021 national championship team — which Sampson does consider a truly great college basketball team — lost at Allen.

That is how things go in this place where Wilt put up 52 points and 31 rebounds in his first official college game ever.

“Oh yes,” Karen Sampson says when I ask Kelvin Sampson’s wife if she remembers the specifics of prior losses for her husband’s teams at Allen Fieldhouse. “Oh yes.”

Coaches’ wives always remember.

Sampson’s 2006 Oklahoma team held a 16-point lead with 10 minutes left in Lawrence and still lost 59-58. Missing three different shots that could have won it in the final 20 seconds. Enduring a sequence of referee calls that would have lit up social media if they happened today. That is part of Kelvin Sampson’s 0-8 lifetime record at Allen Fieldhouse too.

Compared to that, losing a game when Kansas hits 16 of its first 20 shots, opening with the fury and precision of a young Mike Tyson isn’t so bad. Those who only know the caricature of Kelvin Sampson might expect the coach to go ballistic as Houston’s No. 1 defense gives up 78 points and a near unbelievable 68.9 percent shooting clip to the Jayhawks. Instead, if anything, Sampson is calmer than usual with his team in the timeout huddles. This is a coach who knows how to steady a shaken team too.

And for the last 10 minutes in Lawrence, Sampson actually starts to believe some of the positive things he’s telling his players.

It helps that J’Wan Roberts (11 points, 13 rebounds and two steals) and true freshman JoJo Tugler (eight points, eight rebounds, two steals and a block in a career-high 34 minutes with Francis sidelined) are more than up for the battle with Kansas and everything Allen Fieldhouse has.

“He played great,” Sampson says when I ask about Tugler. “He’s one of the best freshman in the country nobody talks about. Him and J’Wan Roberts, I thought, fought their asses off.”

Houston’s Status in a Land of Very Good Teams

Shooting guard LJ Cryer, the Baylor transfer who can shoot with anybody in America when he gets going, does his own heavy lifting. Cryer (24 points) scores 18 straight points in the second half, hits six threes overall and even manages to make the Jayhawk faithful clench up a little. For a moment or two.This very good but not great Houston team is at its best when Shead is creating and Cryer is taking on the lead scoring role.

This second half could be a step back into that direction heading into Tuesday night’s home game with Oklahoma State. The Houston coaching staff changes up some of its offensive actions against the Jayhawks, creating more room for Cryer to get free.

“We started playing off Booms,” Sampson says when I ask about the adjustments. “Booms is when he passes and chases it. When we flip our screens and let him go to work. Get downhill and go make a shot.

“Good for him. (Kansas guard Kevin) McCullar (Jr.) is a good defender. A really good defender with his length. But I think we may have found something there with that.”

There are no higher plane great teams in college basketball this season. And no settings as hostile as this (the pool in Night Swim is more hospitable than Phog) in the NCAA Tournament. Everyone’s favorite No. 1 Connecticut already lost in Allen Fieldhouse this season.

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)

Jamal Shead does not seem to be searching after this one. With Kansas often sending two players at him, trying to limit his view of the court, UH’s lifeline creator finishes with only seven points on 2 for 9 shooting. But that’s not what he talks to his family about in the concourse of Allen Fieldhouse. Elvin Shead, the dad, has watched games in this historic arena before. Stationed in nearby Fort Leavenworth for a time during his US Army days, he made trips to the basketball temple to catch a game when he could, not knowing his own son would be the primary defensive target for a Top 10 Kansas team one day.

“We’ll talk all the time about the game,” Elvin Shead tells PaperCity. “But not immediately afterwards. You’ve got to have a little cool down time. They’ve got to self reflect. I’ve got to self reflect on what I want to say.

“They’ll be fine. He’ll be fine. He’ll be just fine.”

“We don’t have to come back here. Don’t forget, they’ve got to come to Fertitta Center too. And there’s nine games (left). So I’m not going to overreact to this.” — Houston coach Kelvin Sampson

Like Kelvin Sampson, The Sheads know the Big 12’s new power basketball rivalry is just getting started. Round One may be painful for Houston, but it’s not going to decide anything. Round Two and the Fertitta Center await.

“Everybody talks about Connecticut,” Sampson says. “They beat Connecticut here too. And that loss for Connecticut counts the same as ours.

“It’s one loss. Connecticut lost here. We lost here. Pick yourself up and you’d better go get the next one.”

Kelvin Sampson seems energized rather than beaten down, more energized than he can be after some wins. He knows what his team needs from him. Knows what this very good Houston team is capable of.

A power rivalry isn’t built in one game. But Kansas 78, Houston 65 is certainly an interesting start, setting the stage for the rounds to come. Being in a heavyweight basketball bout can be a lot of fun. See you in Fertitta.

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