Culture / Sporting Life

Kelvin Sampson Makes a Mocking Bob Huggins Look Silly — A Coach’s Wife On What Proving Doubters Wrong and Winning This Big 12 Championship Truly Means

This UH Team Has Already Proven Everything It Needs to Heading Into an Anticlimactic Big 12 Tournament

BY // 03.14.24

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A coach’s wife always knows. Karen Sampson can tell that winning this Big 12 regular season championship, one of the most difficult and grueling championships you can win in college sports, means something extra to her husband — University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson.

“When he left the house (before the regular season finale), he said, ‘I really want to win it outright,’ ” Karen Sampson tells PaperCity. ” ‘Because I want this team to win it outright. This team deserves that.’

“. . . It’s storybook. It was storybook.”

With Kelvin Sampson the story is always about the team, not him.

Now Houston goes into the Big 12 tournament as the No. 1 seed, set to play eighth seed TCU at 2 pm Thursday on ESPN. In reality, these 28-3 Cougars have nothing to prove in the kingdom of Patrick Mahomes and Brett Yormark dreamed-up concerts. Even if UH loses to TCU and ends its time at the conference tournament without a win, Jamal Shead and Co. would still be a No. 1 seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament.

That is what proving the doubters wrong over the gauntlet of an entire Big 12 season means. Any idea that Sampson’s Houston team somehow did not have doubters in the Big 12 because they got picked to finish second in the conference (with Kansas a unanimous choice to win it) in a preseason media poll is laughable.

Plenty openly questioned if Houston would be able to adapt, including a prominent former head coach fixture in the league.

Bob Huggins declared Houston dead. The former West Virginia coach dismissed one of the Top 10 college basketball programs in America along with the rest of the Big 12 newcomers.

Joining the Big 12, college basketball’s baddest and boldest college basketball conference in the land, and trying to win in your first year? You might as well be a non swimmer dropped into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean during a squall that’s left to his own devices.

“I feel sorry for them,” Huggins said when asked about the Big 12’s new blood last year. “They have absolutely no idea what they’re getting into. I’ve been in a lot of leagues and I’ve been in a lot of leagues with the best coaches in America. And with the best players in America.

“And I’m telling you right now, it’s the hardest league that I’ve ever coached in. Ever. And the best fan bases. You go in and they may be 3-17 and they’ve got 14,000 people sitting in there. It’s unbelievable the fan support. How good the players are. How good the coaching is. It is such a hard, hard league. And you got to go through it twice.

“And I’m going to tell ya, they’re not ready for that.”

You can bet that Kelvin Sampson heard that and processed it. Just another challenge to a program used to proving itself.

It turns out that Sampson’s Houston basketball program is more than ready. The Cougars have a pretty good idea of how to win in the Big 12. They’re the outright Big 12 regular season champions in their very first season in the conference of dire wolves, ripping through the league with a 15-3 record.

“I feel sorry for them. They have absolutely no idea what they’re getting into.” — Bob Huggins on Big 12 newcomers like Houston heading into the season

Bob Huggins Misses the Big Picture

Kelvin Sampson did not just prove Bob Huggins wrong though. He proved what UH does right. This is not an overnight success story. These Cougars have been nationally elite — one of the Top 10 programs in the entire country operationally — for years and years now.

Building this power has let Sampson do something he never did in 12 seasons at Oklahoma — win the Big 12 outright. No sharing with anyone. Just the complete dominance of finishing a full two games ahead of the second place team.

“We shared it with Kansas at Oklahoma,” Karen Sampson notes. “We were the No. 1 seed though because we beat them in Norman.”

Houston point guard Jamal Shead stands alone as a two way force in college basketball. And the best player on the Big 12 champions. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston point guard Jamal Shead stands alone as a two way force in college basketball. And the best player on the Big 12 champions. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Kelvin Sampson cares about this conference. He has a long history with the Big 12. That is why — even with his team’s NCAA Tournament fate already locked in — he won’t go out of his way to rest guys or hold them out of this conference tournament. Even with Houston reduced to an eight man rotation due to injuries. In contrast, Kansas coach Bill Self elected not to play his banged up two best players — center Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar Jr. — in an attempt to be healthier and better prepared for the only Big Dance that counts. Kansas promptly lost its first game at the Big 12 Tournament — and now gets the benefit of having even more time to rest and recover for the NCAA Tournament.

Just don’t expect Sampson to follow suit.

“Now that we are where we are would it be better if we don’t play the (Big 12) Tournament?” he asks when I ask him about the debate. “Sure. Get the rest, don’t be risking injury and all that. But you know what? That conference tournament is important for everybody.

“It’s important for the fans. It’s important for the universities. More importantly, it’s important to the league. Sometimes you make decisions not selfishly, but selflessly. And that’s why I’ve always been pro tournament.”

This is one of the closest teams Kelvin Sampson’s had during his entire UH run, so close that it reminds Karen Sampson of the Oklahoma 2002 Final Four team that current Houston assistants Quannas White and Hollis Price played on.

“You can tell how this team feels about each other,” Karen Sampson says. “You can tell. . . I can see this team being like the Final Four team of OU. Both this team and that team were so close. So close.”

Just another thing Bob Huggins probably never factored in about Kelvin Sampson’s Houston program.

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