Culture / Sporting Life

Kelvin Sampson’s Humble Road Warriors Are the Best Show in College Basketball — There Is No Entitlement on This No. 1 Houston Team

These Cougars Absolutely Dominate Foes, But Still Don't Act Like a Big Deal

BY // 01.19.23

NEW ORLEANS — There is no big celebration, no hollering to the rafters, no post-buzzer barking at another vanquished would be giant toppler who found it’s much easier to scheme to beat this No. 1 than actually do it. Kelvin Sampson’s University of Houston basketball team exchanges a few fist bumps, shakes the Tulane players’ hands and head back to the visitors locker room smashed into a corner in cramped 90-year-old Fogelman Arena.

After playing like the best team in all of college basketball (again), Marcus Sasser, Jamal Shead, Tramon Mark and Co. don’t act like they think they’re a big deal.

Which doesn’t mean the Cougars don’t have their fun. While point guard Jamal Shead talks to a few reporters outside the locker room, Kelvin Sampson slips behind Andy Yanez, the do-everything young reporter from Gallery Sports who always has a tripod setup. Sampson watches Shead answer a question through Yanez’s viewfinder.

“Oh, that’s fire!” Sampson playful cracks at Shead’s answer. Which causes the point guard to almost lose it. But Shead being Shead (essentially the always-right-answer Peyton Manning of this UH team), he just shakes his head with a big grin and continues talking. These Coogs have fun with one another after a satisfying win. But they don’t flex it in anyone else’s face.

Oh, Kelvin Sampson is fine with his guys playing with an attitude and edge, playing like they know they’re the baddest team in the land. But they’d better not act like they think they’re all that after the final buzzer.

There is no gloating after Houston runs past Tulane 80-60 on a night when the New Orleans school’s students line up to get in two hours before the game. And clearly anticipate storming the court at the final buzzer. There is just some largely quiet satisfaction at another job well done.

This is part of the secret sauce of having the most consistent and dominant basketball team in the land too. And, make no mistake, that is exactly what these now 18-1 Cougars are. Perfect on the road. Winning on Oregon’s weird floor, handing Virginia its only home loss of the season and walloping a Tulane team that many expected to present a stiff challenge along the way.

Houston is the best show in college basketball at the moment, one of the best shows in all of sports. SportsCenter has caught on, spending a good chunk of time on the highlights of the Tulane romp. Yes, there are still many in the Houston media who won’t bother to show until March. Or when Texas comes to town next season. But that’s their loss. And not worth fretting about.

Fans of this UH team are getting to watch Bruce Springsteen at Asbury Park, Big Daddy Kane calling up Jay-Z to take the stage in Los Angeles in 1991. Just make sure you’re enjoying every moment while you can.

Anyone who loves sports for sports that sees this team gets that this is a rare season unfolding, one worth treasuring every step of the way. The constant winning isn’t the rare part. That is an every year thing with a Kelvin Sampson program. It’s the way this team — somehow both the most talented and perhaps the most unselfish roster that Sampson has had in his entire UH run — is doing it that jumps out.

The Tulane beatdown is Houston’s 11th win by at least 20 points, a testament to not only the Cougars’ talent but their focus.

“I know that when we’re on our stuff, we’re a pretty good team,” Shead says. “We’re hard to beat. But we have to come ready to play every day. That’s the task at hand.”

This is a team that plays with a sense of mission, but no sense of entitlement. That is an engrained part of the Sampson DNA too. Kelvin Sampson demands it of his players — play with attitude, don’t have one. Demands it of everyone involved in any aspect of his program really.

Marcus Sasser, Jamal Shead, Tramon Mark and The Power of Three (Passes)

Shead and Mark both seem much more excited to talk about another Marcus Sasser takeover night than anything they’ve done — and both do plenty — against Tulane. This is carryover from the way this UH team plays on the court, racking up 20 assists, leaving Green Wave coach Ron Hunter’s beloved matchup zone defense with more holes than a teenager’s missed curfew excuse. Sasser’s seventh — and last — 3-point make of a 23-point, four assist-night is as telling as any play.

Jamal Shead passes up a shot to swing the ball to Tramon Mark, who passes up an even better shot, to quickly hit Sasser in the corner. With the game already long since decided, this team’s stars are still making the right play. Even then, it’s not about padding their own stats. It’s about finding the best shot for the hottest teammate.

“This team wants to see everybody shine,” Mark tells PaperCity. “Just making the right play is almost as good as scoring the ball. As long as you see your teammates celebrating. It’s a super feeling.”

UH Coogs beat Norfolk State 100-54 at the Fertitta Center
Tramon Mark gives UH another playmaker and a creative force. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

If basketball kept hockey assists as an official stat, this No. 1 team’s numbers would be off the charts. It’s often the good pass that leads to the actual assist with Shead, Sasser, Mark and friends that really makes the difference.

This Houston team now essentially has two point guard worthy playmakers in Shead (14 points, seven assists against Tulane) and Mark (12 points, seven rebounds), another elite guard who is showing more playmaking than ever in Sasser and two gifted front court passers in J’Wan Roberts (15 points, six rebounds) and super freshman Jarace Walker (nine rebounds).

“We have multiple guys on the floor who can see where everybody is on the floor,” Mark says. “That makes it fun.”

So does having those gifted passers be such willing passers.

“I’m very blessed to coach this team because we don’t have any discipline problems,” Kelvin Sampson says. “All are kids are either going to graduate or are on track to graduate. And they’re the kind of kids that you don’t have to worry about.”

This is a team that plays with a sense of mission, but no sense of entitlement. That is an engrained part of the Sampson DNA too. Kelvin Sampson demands it of his players — play with attitude, don’t have one.

Sampson wants his teams to play free on offense as long as they bring it on defense. And this team does. Nineteen games into the season, only four opponents have scored more than 60 points against UH. Tulane scores 28 points less than it had averaged in its 5-1 conference start.

Even by the incredible standards Sampson has set at Houston program that’s won more games in the last six years than any team in the country but Gonzaga, this combination of stifling defense and beautiful offense doesn’t  happen very often. This is a special team even if it’s not full of itself.

Maybe, especially because it’s not full of itself.

“We lost to the No. 1 team in the country,” Tulane coach Ron Hunter says. “. . . They earned the right to be No. 1. And they definitely are.”

Those who called for defending national champion Kansas to jump UH for the No. 1 spot got a dose of reality this week. One that includes Kansas losing a tough Big 12 overtime road game and Houston sending a road crowd that came to party hurrying to the exits with almost three minutes remaining.

“It’s always good feeling when you go on the road and get a big W like that,” Sasser says of noticing the sold-out arena quieting down and a big chunk of Tulane fans leaving early. “But I just feel like that’s part of adversity. That’s part of our culture.

“We prepare for that.”

But they won’t gloat over it. UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson is so business-like after this one that he almost looks like a harried executive racing to catch a Southwest connecting flight, squeezing by the reporters in the tight space outside the visitors locker room, stone faced, pulling his own bag. (The No. 1 team in the country actually travels much better than that. The planes wait for them.)

“I know that when we’re on our stuff, we’re a pretty good team. We’re hard to beat.” — UH point guard Jamal Shead

The University of Houston Cougars beat the SMU Mustangs at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson always brings the intensity. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Any flair is left for the games themselves. This Houston team is very capable of pulling off some pretty did-you-see-that plays. Just know if you break in, seemingly rise to the rafters and attempt to throw down the sickest emphatic one-handed dunk ever. . . and miss, you’ll be suddenly sitting next to Sampson for at least a moment. Even if you’re having a great overall game. That is what happens to Shead with little more than eight minutes remaining.

To be fair to Shead, his dunk attempt is so bold and athletic that it’s intimidating to Tulane even with the miss. But Sampson still screams some choice words that would make even the ghosts in New Orleans take notice and almost immediately subs Shead out.

And sits him for 46 seconds. Point made, time to get back to work.

There will be no entitlement on this No. 1 team. Kelvin Sampson will not allow it. Which is a major part of why this is the most consistent team in the land.

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