Kelvin Sampson is always teaching, frequently pushing for more. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Marcus Sasser is entering this season as the face of this University of Houston basketball team and a consensus preseason All-American. (@UHCougarMBK)
University of Houston forward J'Wan Roberts knows playing for UH means playing for titles. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Reggie Chaney and Jamal Shead share a laugh during the University of Houston basketball team's first official fall practice. (@UHCougarMBK)
Marcus Sasser's shooting stroke is pure. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Tramon Mark's creativity can push UH to another level. (Courtesy UH Athletics)
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson and Fabian White Jr. share a laugh at a press conference. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Marcus Sasser is all about seizing the moment in big games. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Tramon Mark knows you need to fight for the ball to make an impact on this UH team. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
J'Wan Roberts knows all about grabbing hard rebounds. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jarace Walker figures to help add to all the hardware that the University of Houston basketball has already collected.
Two minutes into the first official practice of fall and Kelvin Sampson is already teaching. The University of Houston’s 66-year-old coach is on the floor, in middle of all his players, demonstrating in a most hands-on way. Sampson helps guide Jarace Walker, the super talented freshman who is the highest-rated recruit he’s coached during a remarkable Houston resurrection that’s now entering its ninth year, into the proper box-out position.
There is no mistaking how much Kelvin Sampson is into his, how invested he is into making sure this practice is the best practice it can be. This practice is precious because every practice is precious to Kelvin Sampson. That’s part of what makes him who he is — arguably the best coach in college basketball today, inarguably a should be Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer who is on cusp of 700 career wins for good reason.
“Everything we do, we competing,” Kelvin Sampson tells his team at one point.
As Sampson’s Cougars go through what he calls a hands warmup drill in which the players try to control a ball between their legs for as long as they can (preseason All-American guard Marcus Sasser whose handle may be the most underrated aspect of his game makes the ball look like an extension of his hands it’s moving so fast), he delivers another little challenge.
“You’re competing to get 30,” Sampson barks. “If you play hard, you’ll get 28. If you’re competing, you’ll get 30.”
This type of refrain will soon become second nature to even the UH freshmen like Walker, Terrance Arceneaux and Emanuel Sharp. They’ll start hearing it in their sleep. Some coaches try everything to get their teams to play hard. Kelvin Sampson dismisses that as an unacceptable level, something that is so far below standards that it’s almost worthy of scorn.
Everyone plays hard. That’s YMCA stuff. Sampson wants his guys to compete. For every second they’re on the court. Every time they’re doing anything worth doing, really.
“You can’t prepare for anything that Coach Sampson does,” junior point guard Jamal Shead says, chuckling a little when asked about the newcomers to these Sampson-run practice sessions. “You can talk about it. You can envision it.
“But you can’t prepare yourself for it.”
Kelvin Sampson’s preparation is part of what makes this 2022-23 University of Houston men’s basketball team one of the favorites to win the national championship this year, a near consensus preseason Top 5 team (often Top 3 team). It’s not just the healthy returns of Sasser and Tramon Mark, the breakout of Jamal Shead last season and the addition of super talents like Walker and Arceneaux that have so many national college basketball voices convinced.
It’s the fact that everyone thinks that Kelvin Sampson and his coaching staff will make these talented players even better. Because that is what has been happening in this Third Ward gym with the snazzy new red 2022 Elite Eight banner on the wall for years now.
“Our goal is to win the national championship,” forward J’Wan Roberts tells PaperCity. “Nothing short of that is the goal. Now there’s a lot of steps to go to reach that. A lot. And we all know that.
“We talk about it amongst ourselves as players. We want to hold ourselves to that standard.”
In truth, there really can be no other goal for a program that’s already established itself as one of the best modern day programs in the entire sport. That’s how last year’s team felt and talked. That’s how the 2021 team that did make the Final Four felt. Even back in 2018-2019, when Corey Davis Jr. and Galen Robinson Jr. led the breakthrough 33-4 team that lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on that Tyler Herro transition three, the Cougars felt like there were no teams they couldn’t beat.
The difference now is that the rest of America — and even some of the Houston media — have finally caught on. The difference with this season will be how magnified everything this UH team does is nationally.
“We’re going to be on a big stage,” Shead says. “We’re going to have a lot of eyes on us. Opportunity to show what we can do.”
For his part, Sasser calls it “a blessing.”
To make sure he makes the most of it Sasser is committed to “getting my assists up.” While Jamal Shead and J’Wan Roberts, who’s shown signs of being a rebounding savant, averaging more than 8.8 rebounds per game when he plays at least 20 minutes, have both been working on their 3-point shot.
The 6-foot-7 Roberts tells PaperCity that he tries to take 100 3-pointers from every important spot outside the line daily. “I challenge myself to make a certain number in a row, things like that,” he says.
Everyone plays hard. That’s YMCA stuff. Sampson wants his guys to compete.
Shead, who put together that breakthrough season while shooting under 30 percent from 3 and making less than two per game, knows that adding a reliable 3-point shot to his next level ability to get to the basket and find open players could make him a nightmare to guard. And if he ever forgets, UH assistant coach Quannas White reminds him of it on the daily.
“A lot of people didn’t really respect it last year,” Shead says when I ask about his offseason emphasis on improving his long distance shooting. “Until we got to the tournament and then I made a couple of shots. Going into this year, I think they’ll respect it a little bit more.”
That’s as bold as Jamal Shead will get on it. Shead knows that in Kelvin Sampson’s program it’s about showing your improvement. Not talking about it. Or predicting it. It only matters what you actually show in the games.
Jarace Walker shows his natural skills in this first practice. They jump out whenever he jogs onto any basketball court. Just Walker’s build is something you don’t often see in a 19-year-old first year player. His 6-foot-8, 240 pound frame is already beyond solid. But the highlight plays that are sure to come (Jarace Walker’s dunks will be at a whole other power and ferocity level compared to Taze Moore’s often unbelievably slams of last season) will not wow Kelvin Sampson. At least not that he shows.
“When we get new players everybody starts slobbering all over them like they’re already there,” Sampson says. “None of these guys are ready to impact winning. None of them.”
You have to earn it with Kelvin Sampson. Every day. Even if knows you really are good. Maybe, especially then.
Kelvin Sampson Welcomes Jeff Van Gundy — And All Coaches
On this first practice day, Jeff Van Gundy, the former Knicks and Rockets coach turned peerless basketball TV analyst, is in the gym. During practice, Van Gundy sits quietly in a barebones folding chair, baseball cap pulled low and glasses on, watching intently. One visitor plops down next to him, clearly completely unaware who Van Gundy is.
Van Gundy, who actually led a Jim Dolan-owned team to the NBA Finals (granted it was Dolan’s first year in charge), is still a coach and coach’s son at heart. He respects the sanctity of practice with the same fervor that a Pentecostal minister regards a church Sunday.
But before the practice begins, Sampson and Van Gundy, who became friends during the UH coach’s NBA days, spend about 20 minutes talking basketball.
“There’s a wealth of knowledge in that dude,” Sampson says of Van Gundy. “I love talking to him.”
You don’t have to be a Jeff Van Gundy to get Kelvin Sampson’s attention, though. He has time for almost any coach, On any level. Sampson lets other college coaches who ask, high school coaches, even junior high coaches watch his practices. It’s one of his ways of sharing the game he loves.
If you’ve got a clipboard and a team, Kelvin Sampson will let you observe one of his practices.
“I think we had eight different coaching staffs here in June, July and August,” Sampson says. “Other schools that wanted to come in an observe practice. From all over. West Coast, Midwest, East Coast, Southwest. . .
“(Director of basketball operations) Lauren (Sampson) fielded calls from a bunch of fans who wanted to come to my practice. Fans don’t get to come to practice. That’s not the way this thing works.”
Sampson gives a little head shake like a dad who can’t believe he has to explain this.
“Our goal is to win the national championship. Nothing short of that is the goal.” — UH forward J’Wan Roberts
It’s day one. Of fall practice at least. (This team has actually been working out and working together to get better since early June.) But still, it’s another official milestone step. And Kelvin Sampson couldn’t be happier to be here. He doesn’t really have to tell anyone that.
You can see it in his every practice move, in every lesson he delivers.
“You make him a better shooter with a better pass,” Sampson says, stopping one sequence. UH’s coach has something to teach.
Check out more of PaperCity’s preseason coverage of University of Houston Basketball:
Kelvin Sampson’s New X-Factor — Texas Tech transfer Mylik Wilson
Gives UH a New Smooth, Athletic Marvel
Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Program is Just Getting Started — College Basketball’s Best “New” Brand Has Growing Power
UH Freshman Terrance Arceneaux Gets Early National Love, NBA Future Talk — But This Four Star Just Wants to Win Big
The Forgotten Freshman — Emanuel Sharp Isn’t Getting the Hype, But This Pure Scorer Could Be a Major UH Surprise