Culture / Sporting Life

Marcus Sasser and The Power of College Basketball’s Best Handle — This UH Star Knows a Dribble Will Take Him to the NBA

Tennis Balls, Family Calls and the Ability to Get Absolutely Anywhere You Want

BY // 02.09.23

Marcus Sasser uses tennis balls to make controlling a basketball seem easy. It’s long been part of the University of Houston guard’s routine, part of a family tradition really, handed down from one Sasser to the next. The Gospel of The Handle, an obsession with making your dribble as tight as can be, almost turning the ball into an extension of your hand, is what Sasser’s been raised under.

“Really, soon as I picked up a ball,” Sasser tells PaperCity. “That’s like the first thing they taught me. I really learned how to dribble before I learned how to shoot and pass. It’s always been my first thing before I work out. That’s what I got to do.

“Ball handling.”

Which sometimes means props. Dribbling a basketball with his off hand while throwing a tennis ball up in the air and catching it with his other hand. “I use tennis balls, stuff like that, to keep my hand-eye coordination on point,” Sasser says.

This is how you build one of the very best handles in all of college basketball, day after day after day. Sasser remembers dribbling his first basketball everywhere as a little kid, sometimes driving people crazy with the constant bounce of the ball.

A lot’s changed since then — but Marcus Sasser is still driving people mad with his machine gun dribbling. Sasser can make a basketball move faster than the most cunning carnie running a hidden ball scam. He has crossovers on top of crossovers. His Euro step is quickly becoming a thing of beauty. There are few ways Sasser cannot bend a basketball to the will of his fingers.

Just ask Tulsa. Sasser’s elite handle allows him to create space to get off almost any shot he wants. And Sasser wants all the shots early against Tulsa on Wednesday night. He comes out hunting for them, making sure that a No. 2 Houston team playing its third game in seven days, will not suffer any letdown going into its last real break of the season.

Before the overmatched and overwhelmed Golden Hurricanes can even realize what’s hit them, Sasser’s scored 15 points in the first eight minutes and 31 seconds of the game — and UH is off, rolling to a 46-18 halftime lead and a 23-2 record. Kelvin Sampson’s team could have named its own score in this one. It happens to be 80-42.

Marcus Sasser could have named his own point total too. He’s content with 25, only taking four shots and scoring six points in the second half.

“It just helps the team for the other guys to see our leader compete like he competes on both ends of the court.” — UH assistant Quannas White on Marcus Sasser

“It’s easy to tell when Marcus is going off,” UH freshman guard Emanuel Sharp tells PaperCity. “When he’s in that zone, you do the best to find him and get out of the way.”

Not that Sasser needs much space to get going. Not with that handle.

“His handle is what separates him from a lot of guys,” says Houston assistant coach Hollis Price, who knows something about the power of a killer handle as a small guard who starred on Kelvin Sampson’s first Final Four team at Oklahoma. “. . . His handle, much like Steph Curry, his handle is so good that he can get up open shots anytime. Because he can knock you just an inch off of him and that’s all Marcus really needs.

“Just an inch.”

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team defeated the Tulsa Golden Golden Hurricane behind Marcus Sasser’s 25 points, Wednesday night at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston guard Marcus Sasser’s handle allows him to get a shot off with the tiniest bit of room. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

When I asked UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson if Marcus Sasser had gotten even quicker, he quickly corrected me. No, Sasser’s handle has gotten even better. Which makes him seem even faster.

A great handle can change so much. Which is why Price quickly dismisses any idea that the 6-foot-2 Sasser will not be able to make it in the NBA.

“Yes. No question,” Price says simply when asked if Sasser is an NBA player. “He’s got it all. I think where he is at this point, he can shoot the ball. He can lead a team because his first two years he lead the team as the point guard. And he can defend.

“That’s three things you need at the next level. With all of the winning that he’s done these four years, that’s going t0 translate.”

UH assistant coach Quannas White, who works with the guards, points to that defense as the ingredient that helps separate Sasser. On a night when Tulsa becomes the ninth team to fail to even reach 50 points against Houston this season, a night when the Golden Hurricanes are hounded into missing 25 of the 29 3-pointers they hoist up, White points to Sasser as the tone setter on that end too.

“When he’s aggressive on both ends,” White tells PaperCity. “He’s the leader of this team. We know how well he can defend. I thought Marcus’ defense to start the game was really, really good. I’m really proud of him. That helps lift our whole team.

“It just helps the team for the other guys to see our leader compete like he competes on both ends of the court.”

Marcus Sasser Finds His Dream Team

Marcus Sasser withdrew his name from the NBA Draft last June to improve his game further in one of the best developmental programs in all of America. But he also came back for the chance to be part of a team like this.

The most talented team Kelvin Sampson has ever had at the University of Houston. A team of elite players that willingly, no eagerly, share the basketball. A team that racks up 21 assists on 31 made baskets against Tulsa (with 12 of those dimes coming from point guard Jamal Shead and a number of hockey assists that set up the assist coming from soon-to-be NBA lottery pick Jarace Walker.)

Teams like this don’t come along very often. You’re lucky to be on one or two of them in a good basketball lifetime.

“We all kind of look to pass first and I think that’s a great thing to have when you’ve got five guys who can pass at a high level,” Sasser says. “It makes the game fun. When you see everybody making passes or making the extra pass for open shots, you want to continue that rhythm and flow during the game.”

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team defeated the Tulsa Golden Golden Hurricane behind Marcus Sasser’s 25 points, Wednesday night at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston players J’Wan Roberts, Tramon Mark, Jamal Shead and Marcus Sasser are always having fun. And UH quarterback record shatterer Case Keenum and his wife Kimberly enjoyed the show this night at Fertitta Center. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Still, UH coach Kelvin Sampson often wishes Sasser would almost be a little more selfish — and take every open shot he gets.

“Yeah, and I still thought he passed up some he should have took,” Sampson says when I ask him about Sasser’s early aggressiveness in this game. “We put such an emphasis on ball movement and being unselfish, making the right play. . .

“But Marcus plays the right way.”

“His handle is what separates him from a lot of guys. His handle, much like Steph Curry, his handle is so good that he can get up open shots anytime.” — UH assistant Hollis Price on Marcus Sasser

Sasser’s been raised in a true basketball family in Red Oak in the shadow of Dallas. His uncle Jason Sasser was a star at Texas Tech and his uncle Jeryl Sasser emerged from SMU as an NBA first round draft pick. And Marcus’ dad — Marcus Sr. — might have been the best pure shooter of the three. But they all preached The Gospel of The Handle.

Marcus Sasser had little choice but to become a willing student.

“Definitely, I feel like handles is one of the most important things in basketball,” Sasser says. “Especially at my size, guard size. You can get anywhere you want to on the court with your handle. Really, I just be trying to improve it every day.

“Just make it perfect almost. I can still surprise a lot of people with it.”

Leaning against the wall, Marcus Sasser looks like he’d be happy to keep talking about dribbling for an hour. Some things are just a part of you. Some things are just you. You don’t get the best handle in college basketball by accident.

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