Culture / Sporting Life

Inside Kelvin Sampson’s Ingenious Final Four Follow Up Plan — How a Jamal Shead Steal is More Than a Steal

Recruiting Class Mania, Banner Night Give Way to Old Basics

BY // 11.11.21

Almost two hours after the 2021 Final Four banner is revealed, a new University of Houston team is on the verge of the type of loss that would cause the over reactionists to drop them from the Top 25 one week into season. Hofstra essentially only needs to inbounds the ball and hit some free throws. But Jamal Shead jumps up to steal the pass and finds Marcus Sasser, who finds Taze Moore all alone in the left corner for a game-tying 3-pointer with 24 seconds left.

It is the type of play that shows both anticipation and awareness from Shead, a sophomore who played a mere 16 minutes total during UH’s five game NCAA Tournament run. On the opening night of Houston’s new season, it leads to a 83-75 overtime win. But what it says about this UH team’s future could mean much more.

“He wouldn’t have done that in the first half because of nerves,” UH coach Kelvin Sampson says of Shead. “I could tell there was a lot of jitteriness. A lot of nerves. Think about it — the last time that kid played in a game of this magnitude? Probably never.

“. . . He’s still trying to figure out a role. He’s never played in a game where he came off the bench and played a lot of minutes. But we see that every day in practice.”

To everyone else it’s banner night — and Fertitta Center is electric for it. But to Sampson, it’s a night of new beginnings. When the curtain covering the banner is pulled off, revealing one of the spoils of a redefining Houston season, Sampson stands in front of his team, intently looking up. The basketball lifer seems to be allowing himself a moment. But when I ask him about in the postgame, he immediately changes the subject to this new team.

Sampson is not being evasive. He is doing what he knows works.

The family braintrust of this remarkable program resurrection — Kelvin Sampson, assistant coach Kellen Sampson and director of basketball operations Lauren Sampson — have a game plan for following up a Final Four run.

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh we’ve made it,’ ” Lauren Sampson tells PaperCity. “Heck no! Our whole thing is ‘No.’ We’re going back to basics.”

The Sampsons have some experience in following up a Final Four run. And doing it successfully. Kelvin Sampson coached Oklahoma to the 2002 Final Four — and then made the Elite Eight the following season. Kellen and Lauren watched every step of the way.

“We’ve learned some lessons,” Lauren Sampson says of that Oklahoma Final Four followup.

Which means that there will be little public talk about the 2021 Final Four run. No matter how much it’s brought up by everyone else. And it will be brought up a lot — with Kelvin Sampson answering questions about UH’s potential further program elevating 2022 recruiting class (which includes Jarace Walker, the No. 1 rated power forward in America) for the first time Thursday and traditional powerhouse Virginia, one of the only programs in the country which can match the Cougars’ track record over the last five seasons, coming into town for a game at the Fertitta Center Tuesday night.

Just don’t expect anyone within Kelvin Sampson’s program to indulge in such talk.

“You forget that a lot of the folks around UH right now, weren’t there,” Lauren Sampson says. “So I don’t think they understand how hard it was. We’re now going, ‘No, no, no. We’re not resting on our laurels.’ There’s not one piece of us that thinks, ‘Oh guys, we’re good.’ No, no, no. We’re weirdly aggressive about that.”

Two of the three players in Houston’s opening night lineup — guards Taze Moore and Kyler Edwards — are completely new to the program. Six of the 14 players on the roster are new. And even the experienced returning players face sometimes drastically different roles.

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh we’ve made it. Heck no! Our whole thing is ‘No.’ We’re going back to basics.” — Lauren Sampson

Take Marcus Sasser. Sasser’s always shown the ability to hit big shots and take over games when he’s rolling. No one rose to the Final Four moment against Baylor more than Sasser. But he also could rely on Quentin Grimes and DeJon Jarreau to control the game when things weren’t going well for him last season. He did not have to help carry the team every game.

Now he does. Now, Marcus Sasser must take on the Quentin Grimes role in many ways as the team’s primary scorer and most dependable option. It is a burden that will be even more intense as long as Tramon Mark, who may be UH’s most gifted player and clearly is its most natural distributor, is out with a shoulder injury.

On opening night, you can almost see Sasser searching and adjusting as the game goes on, recalibrating in real time like an elite quarterback processing a situation he’s never faced before. Under the pressure of an underrated mid-major pushing for an upset and all the hoopla of banner night. Kelvin Sampson pulls Sasser aside to talk to him several times during the opener, the last when he puts his lead guard back in for good with 12:23 remaining.

These are lessons in leadership, Sampson almost quietly molding his most important player in front of 6,000-plus largely oblivious sets of eyes.

So far, so good. Sasser shakes off a 1 for 5 start from 3-point land to score 17 of his 25 points after halftime. Maybe even more importantly, he spreads his belief to his teammates like a Pentecostal preacher worked up on an Easter Sunday. It is Sasser who’s been in the ear of Moore, the talented Cal State Bakersfield transfer, all fall, urging him to keep shooting, keep hustling, keep bringing the energy no matter what.

And when Moore hits that 3-pointer from the wing to tie the game at 69 and set up overtime, it is Sasser who runs over and screams, “I told you!”

Marcus Sasser, The Burden and Sampson Ways

The 41-plus minutes Marcus Sasser plays in UH’s opener speaks to the extent of the burden he could have. Especially the first chunk of the season before Tramon Mark gets back and the rest of Sasser’s teammates catch up.

“Just keep playing,” Sasser says of his mindset. “Shots shouldn’t determine how you play. First half — I don’t even know how many shots I missed. I know I wasn’t making shots that were wide open. . .

“But coach always says when you play hard good things will happen. Second half shots started falling. Team started coming together, we started rebounding.”

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team opened their 2021-2022 season with an overtime victory over the HofstraPride, complete with the presentation of a banner commemorating their trip to last season’s Final Four, Tuesday night at the Fer
Marcus Sasser brings plenty of fire to UH basketball. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

The Cougars outscore Hofstra 32-13 in the last seven minutes regulation and the five minutes of overtime. Kelvin Sampson’s team will not lose at home to a mid major like six power conferences teams (Virginia, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, California, Washington and Nebraska) do on college basketball’s opening night.

Instead, they absorb their lessons while winning. Instead, Shead — who goes scoreless with two turnovers in nine first half minutes — makes that steal and heady pass ahead when Houston needs it most. Instead J’Wan Roberts does his best Justin Gorham impression, grabbing 15 rebounds (nearly one third of all the rebounds UH gets) in 24 minutes.

There will be plenty of stressful moments for this Final Four follow-up team in the next few months. Trying to solve Tony Bennett’s Pack Line defense. Playing at ultra talented Alabama in a Saturday night atmosphere. Getting an underdog’s best every single time. From Hofstra to Rice this Friday night and on and on. . .

Luckily, the Sampsons have seen this kind of thing before. And have a plan for it.

The Sampsons have some experience in following up a Final Four run. And doing it successfully. Kelvin Sampson coached Oklahoma to the 2002 Final Four — and then made the Elite Eight the following season.

“When you’re in the business, I think you have to turn the page so much quicker,” Lauren Sampson says, standing at the opening of the tunnel that leads to the locker rooms, watching the first few minutes of a very new season. “We’ve got six kids on this team that were not on that team. And those kids are going to play significant roles on this team.

“And so for us to get them, and to honor them, and get ready for this next season, we have to turn the page. We’ve learned some lessons and we also remember. That year after the Final Four at Oklahoma was an Elite Eight year.”

Success can bring more success. If you both remember and forget. Which is why Lauren Sampson went around with her dad as the UH coach did his campus blitz — walking around campus with a megaphone, reminding everyone that there is a basketball game the next day — for the first time since 2017 before this season’s opener.

Getting back to the basics that helped raise that historic banner in the first place is a mantra for the program. It’s about doing the little things even as the spotlight gets bigger and bigger. Opening night for this new UH team shows that the Fertitta Center deserves a spot alongside Minute Maid Park as the two most exciting venues in all of Houston sports.

But it also shows how the follow up plan is already shifting into gear, Jamal Shead steals the inbounds, makes the pass that leads to the pass that ties the game. It is a new start, a largely new player showing a confidence he did not have in the first half. Let alone last season. It is a step in the Sampson Plan, the first of many.

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