Culture / Sporting Life

Money Program — New Study Shows How Much Kelvin Sampson’s Powerhouse Basketball Team Benefits UH

Houston AD Chris Pezman Shares Real Data, NCAA Tournament Bubble Realities, Scheduling Truths and More

BY // 02.09.21

Many think Top 10 rankings, national attention and showcase moments are priceless. And they’re right in a way. But there are also very tangible benefits, ones that can be measured and a new study shows just how much Kelvin Sampson’s powerhouse basketball program benefits the University of Houston.

“We just ran an audit of media evaluations,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman tells PaperCity. “And just in print from the beginning of the season to two days ago — and this is just print, it’s soft money not hard money — it was like an $18 million impact in exposure.

“And I’m still waiting on the TV part (of the analysis). Knowing that the season’s got more to it and the multiples that comes with that, there’s huge value.”

The University of Houston men’s basketball team moved to 16-2 with a 112-46 wipeout of incredibly overmatched Our Lady of the Lake, an NAIA school from San Antonio, Saturday. Sampson’s resurrection of the UH program has been one of college basketball’s best stories for several years now — and the Cougars have been in the Top 11 all season. They’re currently ranked 8th in the country.

Which is bringing all sorts of notice — and eyeballs — to UH.

“It’s exposure for the university at a time — when with the pandemic — it’s hard to get people here,” Pezman says. “To have the type of success we’re having with the type of kids that we have, that are just grinders, blue collar kids that really play their butt off, it’s fun to see.”

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As Pezman and I talk, Sampson’s team is dismantling Our Lady of the Lake. Tramon Mark is showing why he’s one of the most talented freshman in the country, scoring 22 points in 22 minutes. Cameron Tyson is breaking the school’s record for 3-pointers in a game without even really seemingly getting hot. And the Cougars’ usual starters are sitting out the game, enthusiastically cheering the bench players who usually cheer for them.

“When you continue to get back to these moments where something special can happen, sooner or later, you’re going to break through.” – Houston AD Chris Pezman

Many college basketball observers (including this sports writer) would argue that UH could have gotten much more out of this open date by testing themselves against No. 1 Gonzaga, a matchup that was in play. Pezman would not agree. This is an athletic director who clearly puts his coaches’ wishes first in scheduling.

Especially one as proven — and winning — as Kelvin Sampson.

“That’s coach’s call,” Pezman says of going with Our Lady in the Fertitta Center over Gonzaga in Salt Lake City. “He knows what his team needs and what he wants. I don’t get worked up on that kind of stuff.

“I really defer to our coaches when it gets to these moments because they know what they’ve got and what they need. It’s my job to support them in those moments.”

New March Madness Truths

As attractive as a national TV showdown with one of this year’s super teams is, it’s easy to forget for a minute that this is not a regular season. This is the COVID-19 season — when many other factors must be taken into consideration. Pezman sees Sampson doing that with this scheduling decision.

Sampson and the AD know what is coming. The unique challenges that this year’s anything-but-usual version of March Madness will bring. Pezman had a phone call with Brian Thornton, the American Athletic Conference associate commissioner of basketball on Friday night, right after Thornton talked to NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt. The AD now has a better idea of what’s really in store for the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s not going to be the full NBA bubble, but it’s going to be really similar,” Pezman tells PaperCity.  “Basically, we’re going to leave and go to Fort Worth for (the AAC conference) tournament and we’ll be gone until the NCAA Tournament’s over.

“. . . You could be gone up to a month straight. And really a pretty bubble dynamic. And how do you keep young kids fresh mentally through that. That’s why (Sampson’s) doing what he’s doing with a game like this.”

Houston’s 99-22 record over the last four seasons, more wins than any Division I programs besides Gonzaga and Virginia over that time period, speaks to the success of Sampson’s long view approach. Houston still ranks fifth in the entire nation in the all important NET rankings despite last week’s surprising loss to a now 8-8 East Carolina team.

This is a team — and a program — that will not be leaving the national stage anytime soon.

“With what Coach and these kids have done, we’re in rare air,” Pezman says. “I think our fans, our people, don’t take it for granted. But he’s got something here that we’re going to give him every chance to sustain.

“It’s one thing to kind of have it one year and kind of be a flash in the pan, a one hit wonder. It’s how do you get it continually? It’s one shot away from (beating) Michigan. It’s (Tyler) Herro making a shot with Kentucky (to keep Houston from the Elite Eight).

“It’s one of those things I’ve learned. Look, I’ve been in it for a long time — when you continue to get back to these moments where something special can happen, sooner or later, you’re going to break through.”

Houston Kentucky NCAA Tournament
DeJon Jarreau raced over to contest the shot, but Tyler Herro’s transition three led to Houston heartbreak in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

This 16-2 Houston team with one of America’s deepest backcourts led by Quentin Grimes, DeJon Jarreau and Marcus Sasser and a front court powered by the unquenchable hustle of rebound machine Justin Gorham (and maybe the return of big man shooter Fabian White Jr.) is setting itself up for another prime March opportunity.

“We’re trying to figure out how to get back to these moments as many times as we can,” Pezman says. “Because the law of averages are going to tell you, we’re going to break through.”

After the 66-point win win over Our Lady of the Lake, Pezman stood by the tunnel leading to the Cougars’ locker room, giving each player a fist bump as they passed by. Just one little way for the AD to show appreciation for a team that always plays hard. One that almost always makes the University of Houston look good. On and off the court.

Sampson brings up his program’s culture a lot, but it’s much more than just a talking point. It can be seen in how Jamal Shead flirts with a quadruple double against Our Lady of the Lake – try a 20 point, 11 assist, nine rebound, eight steal line — and then happily talks about knowing he’ll go right back to being a deep backup in this Wednesday’s game at USF.

“I know who I’m playing behind,” Shead says. “And we’re a really good team. It’s just taking on a role. And getting used to that role. And getting confident in that role.”

Pezman admires that Sampson Culture. He believes it’s going to be more important than ever in this year’s anything-but-traditional NCAA Tournament.

“That’s where a team’s culture is going to be real important when you get to the postseason and you can be used to being in a regiment for a long period of time,” Pezman says. “That’s going to be real.

“That’s going to be as much as anything a determiner on how the tournament goes for teams.”

This is another area where the athletic director is sure Kelvin Sampson gives the University of Houston an edge. You could even study it.

This is the first part of a series. Stay tuned to PaperCityMag.com for part two later this week.

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