Culture / Sporting Life

Kelvin Sampson’s Most Talented Houston Team Ever is Already Leaving a Big Mark — Winning by 38 Points Per Game and Letting a Hall of Fame Level Coach Demand Even More

Tramon Mark Is Reemerging, Super Frosh Jarace Walker Is Learning Lessons and the Bench Seems Endless

BY // 11.15.22

Tramon Mark gets the ball at the top of the key, with plenty of time to go to work. The entire lane is his, cleared out to give him all the room he could ever need. Oral Roberts has absolutely no chance of stopping Mark, the most gifted drive creator on what just may be the single most talented roster Kelvin Sampson’s ever had in a lifetime of coaching.

A mouse has a better chance of stopping a cobra.

So Mark glides to the rim with a hesitation dribble, pulls up for jumpers, gets to the free throw line. Time and time again, it’s a night of choose which way you want to score for Mark, the most twisted choose your own adventure story Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills has ever seen.

This is the problem for opponents that want to topple — or even challenge — this No. 3 University of Houston basketball squad that already may be playing like the best team in the land. Who do you try and stop? How do you stop enough of these relentless Coogs? And how the heck do you score?

“On most nights, he’s going to have a great matchup,” UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity of Mark. “A team’s best defender is going to be on (preseason All-American guard) Marcus (Sasser). And because Jamal (Shead) is such an awesome point guard, you’ve got to put a really good player on him.

“Tramon is going to have a chance to take advantage of some really good matchups all year long. And he’s more than capable.”

Mark may have been the most naturally talented player on Houston’s 2021 Final Four team. As a true freshman. And after having even less of a chance to make an impact last season than Marcus Sasser because of injuries, Mark is determined to show all his skills. Against Oral Roberts in the first game of the Cougar Classic mini tournament on Monday night that means scoring a career-high 23 points on 12 shots in a 83-45 UH runaway.

And there’s your beating Houston conundrum. Mark and Sasser (19 points, including an absolutely cold-blooded three at the halftime buzzer) almost score as many points as a duo (42) as Oral Roberts’ entire team does (45). And Jamal Shead absolutely completely takes Max Abmas , one of the best shooters in all of college basketball, out of the game, hounding him into 1 for 13 night. With the one make a near logo three.

Where’s your road map to an upset?

UH beating the unremarkable trio of Northern Colorado, Saint Joseph’s and Oral Roberts to open this season isn’t what is building more and more early national buzz around Kelvin Sampson’s already Top 3 team. It’s the way the Cougars are doing it, simply overwhelming teams, winning by an average of 38 points per game, scoring more than 80 points in every game.

Kelvin Sampson wins a lot of games every season at UH. It’s what he does. Even when his two most talented players are lost for the season in December. But just three games in, this already looks different.

This just may be what it looks like when Kelvin Sampson is holding a royal flush. This Hall of Fame worthy coach can beat you with a bad hand or a very disadvantaged one. But give him this and. . .

“Last year I always felt like I was coaching with one hand tied behind my back a little bit,” he says. “Because I lived in constant fear of foul trouble and fatigue because we had no depth. And that was an issue. And it affected the way I coached and the way I had to manage the game.

“This year, if you’re not doing what I asked you to do? Sit down. Yo. I’m not going to ask you twice.”

Sampson certainly does not ask Jarace Walker, his supernova of a freshman talent, twice on this night. In fact, he takes a timeout less than three minutes into the second half, up 24 points, to take Walker and J’Wan Roberts out, unsatisfied with their effort. Walker only ends up playing 13 minutes and scoring two points the game after he exploded for 23 on Saint Joseph’s.

And Kelvin Sampson’s roster of riches does not miss a beat. Terrance Arceneaux, another Top 50 recruit, comes off the bench and puts up 14 points and five rebounds in 22 minutes, hits three 3-pointers with Oral Roberts all but forced to leave him completely wide open. And Ja’Vier Francis practically jumps off the bench to rack up an 11 point, 11 rebound double-double in just 16 minutes of court time. With two blocks and two steals thrown in for good measure.

“Just learning how to play hard every day, every chance I get,” Francis says.

The University of Houston basketball team, led by head coach Kelvin Sampson, faced the Northern Colorado Golden Bears in their 2022-2023 season opening game at the Fertitta Center
Ja’vier Francis brings some athletic skills to UH. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Kelvin Sampson and the Art of Pushing Harder

This roster is deep enough and talented enough that Kelvin Sampson can teach all kinds of lessons in a game like this. In many ways, these Cougars are so flush that the unforgiving Kelvin Sampson can be even more demanding.

Practices are already shaping up as pure battles with no letup unpunished.

“It holds guys accountable,” Kellen Sampson says. “It makes every one of our guys know they’d better bring it. Because if they don’t it’s going to be a mess. I wish those guys would close out on (freshman shooter) Emanuel Sharp in practice.

“Because it’s going to be their behind.”

Kelvin Sampson makes a point of mentioning how winning a game, any game, isn’t easy after this 38 point win over an Oral Roberts team picked to win the Summit League. He notes that his assistants will never really understand what he means by that until they are head coaches themselves.

But Kelvin Sampson’s players will tell you that the games are sometimes easier than dealing with his demands in practice for two hours.

“It’s not easy being good,” Sampson says. “It’s really hard being good.”

Mark is embracing the work, having missed all but seven games of last season and looking like a shadow of himself in those games he did play with a throbbing shoulder. He’s remade his shot, determined to add a more consistent long range jumper to make his drives even more difficult to stop. He’s hit three of the eight 3-pointers he’s taken in these first three games, which may be the most encouraging sign of all to him.

“I’ve worked on that shot countless hours in the gym,” Mark tells PaperCity. “Just seeing it go in, in front of all the fans and my teammates, it was good.”

Mark hopes his jumper can be another weapon for one of the deepest teams in the country.

This just may be what it looks like when Kelvin Sampson is holding a royal flush. This Hall of Fame worthy coach can beat you with a bad hand or a very disadvantaged one. But give him this and. . .

One of the very best coaches in the game has all kinds of options now. That should alarm the rest of the college basketball world. It sure seems to interest other coaches too. Former Rockets coaches Rudy Tomjanovich and Jeff Van Gundy are both in the Fertitta Center for this Monday nighter, having come separately. Mattress Mack is there too.

Who doesn’t want to see what Kelvin Sampson will do with a roster like this? It’s like giving Picasso an unlimited canvas, like telling Dwayne Johnson he longer needs any workout rest days.

“He’s certainly understanding we’ve got a chance to do some things here,” Kellen Sampson says of his dad’s outlook. “He’s been coaching long enough to know that when you’ve got a barn with some horses in it, it’s a whole heck of a lot better than a barn that ain’t got no horses.

“But I think he’s having — fun. The fun for him obviously is — and it’s why we’re a development program — is he’s a development coach. He loves bringing young guys along. He loves helping them with their maturation process.”

Kelvin Sampson having. . . fun. Getting to be more demanding than ever. Yes, the rest of the college basketball world is probably right to already worry.