Culture / Sporting Life

UH’s Ultimate X Factor Floors Jim Nantz and Case Keenum — How Quentin Grimes Left Kansas to Climb the Basketball Ladder

A Championship Moment Shows This Unconventional Transfer's Talent, the Coogs' Love For Their Quiet Big Man and a Program Still on the Rise

BY // 03.09.20

Quentin Grimes never got to cut down the nets at Kansas — which is like going to Hawaii and never stepping foot on the beach. But Grimes made sure he climbed the ladder in his first season in Kelvin Sampson’s University of Houston program.

With Penny Hardaway’s Memphis team fighting for its NCAA Tournament life, with UH mostly just fighting for its family and a big quiet senior who makes everyone smile, Grimes is the one who grabs a championship moment.

The talented transfer from Kansas has alternately been bolstered and burdened by being a Top 10 player in the same high school class as Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. Everyone always has high expectations for Quentin Grimes.

On the last day of Houston’s regular season, Grimes reminds everyone why. He is the best player on the floor in the moments when UH’s 64-57 win over Memphis are decided. Even though Memphis has Precious Achiuwa, a 6-foot-9 leaper who looks like an NBA lottery pick in a high-motor, 25-point, 15-rebound afternoon.

“On a team of X factors, Q is the X factor,” UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “He takes us to an all new level. He’s got the game that allows us to climb a ladder. Because he can do so many things.”

It is Grimes who scores 10 straight points and 15 of UH’s 17 points in a 17-2 run that gives Houston the win, turning a 41-39 Memphis advantage into a 56-43 Cougars lead. The entire spree takes little more than six minutes of game time. It turns out that is all Grimes needs to go net snipping at UH.

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For almost five hours after their game ends, Sampson’s players are back on the court at the Fertitta Center. Jim Nantz, Case Keenum and the loud crowd that braved the coronavirus panic culture are long gone. But there are ladders under each basket.

Tulsa could not win the American Athletic Conference regular season championship outright, getting blown away by Wichita State in its final game. So the Cougars (23-8 overall, 13-5 AAC) are co-champions of their league with the Golden Hurricanes and Cincinnati.

So Grimes is climbing the ladder with scissors for Houston’s university after having the misfortune of playing for Kansas in the one season the Jayhawks didn’t celebrate some type of championship in the past 16 years.

Grimes is finally getting a real March celebration — and it’s well deserved. For the first time since the days of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, the Cougars are back-to-back conference champs.

“One of the main reasons why I came here was to be accomplish something like this with this group of guys,” Grimes says, a red American Athletic Conference Champions shirt pulled over his chest and a red AAC champs hat on his head. “They’re my brothers now for life.

“Just to have this and be mentioned with Phi Slama Jama, that’s something. . .”

Grimes stops mid sentence, halted by the site of UH’s 64-year-old coach Kelvin Sampson breaking into a boogey dance in the middle of a large circle of players. “Look now — it don’t last long, Q,” cracks Sampson.

The resurrector of programs and The Woodlands kid who’s always been told he’s the type of player who changes programs share a grin.

It is not easy to take a program last truly nationally relevant when Ronald Reagan was president and make it matter again. It is also not easy to go to Kansas thinking you’re going to follow Zion and RJ Barrett right into the NBA Draft — and accept that not only is that not happening, but that you need a fresh start somewhere else.

Transition Year Championship?!

That Sampson somehow delivered this young team — one that should have been crippled by sharp shooting guard Armoni Brooks making the still baffling decision to declare for the NBA Draft — to a regular season conference title is the stuff that should be taught in coaching clinics. The crazy truth is that this should have been UH’s down year.

Truth is even being 23-8, the No. 2 seed in a conference tournament that starts this week at Fort Worth’s new $540 million showcase arena and an NCAA Tournament lock, it still might be.

“It’s funny when I first got here and met with Kelvin, he started writing down all the players names and the classes coming and how it was all set up and you knew it was there,” University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman tells PaperCity. “The path to sustained success. And if you look ahead, you see young guys contributing this year.

“It’s going to be like this for a long time.”

An otherwise sleepy Sunday in Houston screams that out loud and clear. The morning after daylight savings, Sampson’s players are essentially starting a game at 10 am on their biological clocks. Still, CBS is in the building, broadcasting a game from Houston for the first time in 36 years. It’s their No. 1 crew too, which means University of Houston’s own Jim Nantz is calling a Cougars home game for the first time in his long career of being the voice of just about every major sports event on the planet.

Jim Nantz UH
Jim Nantz certainly enjoyed the first UH home game he’s called in 40 years. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Case Keenum, the quarterback who shattered NCAA passing records at UH, and his wife Kimberly are there too, sitting in the front row on the baseline. Keenum leads the “Whose House? Coogs’ House!” chant before the opening tip. Keenum may never be the new Tony Romo on TV, but when an NFL career that is still going along entering year eight of starting games is finally over, he could be one heck of a preacher.

“It’s awesome man,” Keenum says of being back on the UH campus, in a showcase college hoops venue. “This place is awesome. I love seeing them in the (NCAA) Tournament the last couple of years. Coach Sampson has done an incredible job, man. They’re so talented. It’s really cool. I’m just excited to be back here.”

It is one those days that reminds just how big time Kelvin Sampson has made this UH basketball program feel in a short period of time. To Sampson’s current players though, this day is largely about Chris Harris Jr., the big guy who grew up in the heart of the nation’s fourth largest city.

This Houston team’s lone senior player will leave UH as the first person in his family to graduate from college. Just what that means can be seen in the fact that two sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all come out onto the court with Harris for his pregame Senior Day moment.

Chris Harris Jr., University of Houston graduate, could be changing the entire trajectory of his family. But first he helped change his teammates lives. That can be heard in the what is read off at the team’s private senior night get-together the evening before this last home game of the season.

“One of the main reasons why I came here was to be accomplish something like this with this group of guys. They’re my brothers now for life.” — Quentin Grimes

In another Sampson-implemented tradition when the team gathers the night before the season’s final home game, every player is given a pencil and a piece of paper to write down a memory or a story about the Cougars’ departing seniors.

“It can be a funny story, whatever you want to write,” Kelvin Sampson says. “Then they get to stand up and read it to the senior. I’ve had some heartfelt ones. (Damyean) Dotson’s was emotional. It was a tearjerker. (Last year’s senior point guard) Galen (Robinson Jr.) started crying. It’s usually an emotional night.

“I listened to every coach and every player talk about Chris last night. And that one was probably the most complete top to bottom of what Chris meant to them. Never says a word. All though he talks a lot more as a senior than he did as a sophomore, obviously. But just the impact he had on their lives.”

Quentin Grimes’ Houston Family

Grimes has only been with Harris for one season, but everybody’s McDonald’s All-American talks about wanting to win this game for the big man with the giant heart, too. Every major sports program in the world wants you to believe they’re a “family.” It’s become a cliche for a reason.

But somehow, this UH program under Kelvin Sampson still comes across as something of an authentic mom-and-pop. As big time as it’s become, there is a realness, a humanness, that remains around the operation, Even after 83-20 over the last three seasons.

Maybe it’s because Lauren Sampson, the coach’s daughter and UH director of operations, is the one handing out the championship T-shirts and hats before the cutting down of the nets. Maybe it’s the way Kellen Sampson, the son and assistant who is under contract as the head coach of the future, ties his snippet of net to the front of his backwards baseball cap like a happy kid would. It’s a hundred of those little things and much more.

There is something real here — genuine feelings that seem to run up and down the roster. When you look closer, it’s easier to see why some players might fit better here.

Kansas basketball is such a blue-blooded Goliath, a virtual machine of consistent humming excellence. In some ways, the Jayhawks are as corporate as the New York Yankees. Quentin Grimes was a cog in that machine in Lawrence.

There are plenty of national perks that come with that. But maybe Grimes can be more of a person in the Third Ward. He’s no longer on the NBA super fast track that guys like Zion and Barrett took right into the league. But Quentin Grimes is still capable of being the best player on the floor even when a lottery pick is on the other side. He’s still the wildcard that gives this flawed but fierce Houston team the chance to pull off a gargantuan March surprise.

“I love Quentin Grimes,” Kelvin Sampson says. “I love him because of his journey, his perseverance and the way he can have a night like he did tonight.”

Quentin Grimes left Kansas to get to cut down the nets at the University of Houston. Yes, you could say he does things his own way. There’s no established basketball logic in that statement. But it sure makes for one hell of a story.

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