Culture / Sporting Life

Kelvin Sampson’s Program Man — Reggie Chaney’s Relentless Unselfishness Sets a Tone for a Houston Team That May Be College Basketball’s True No. 1

The Power of Passing, a Fearless Point Guard and a Super Talent That Flashes

BY // 02.17.23

DALLAS — Jamal Shead really wants to get Reggie Chaney an easy basket, something to reward the hard physical work the senior forward puts in for the second ranked college basketball team in the land. But that’s not so simple to do, even for one of the best point guards in the country. Not with how seldom Chaney thinks of himself.

The first time Shead finds Chaney down low, early in the second half, the forward quickly swings the ball out to Marcus Sasser in the corner for an open three. It’s the right basketball play, the extra pass following a great initial pass that this particular University of Houston team is quickly making its signature. But when Shead finds Chaney open again right near the basket with 30 seconds left in a game UH has long since secured, Shead is certain he’s finally gotten the bruiser an easy bunny.

But Chaney still looks to see if he can get the ball to fellow forward J’Wan Roberts instead first, before finally, almost reluctantly, electing to lay it in the hoop for the final points in UH’s 80-65 brushback of SMU.

“Reggie’s a guy that never worries about his own points,” Shead says when I ask him about the sequence. “Even on that last possession when I got him that layup, he was looking for somebody to come up so he can get J’Wan the ball.”

It’s not easy to get an assist when you’re passing to Reggie Chaney. And that’s part of why this now 24-2 Houston squad is a little different from almost every other team in America. Kelvin Sampson’s teams tend to be largely unselfish. He demands that be a core tenet of his program. But this year’s UH team is taking that to a new level.

The most talented roster Sampson has ever had at Houston is also arguably the most unselfish. And certainly the most naturally gifted passing team the Cougars have had in Sampson’s remarkable elite program building run. Houston’s best players — Shead, Sasser and super freshman Jarace Walker — set the tone for this.

But so does Reggie Chaney, a senior who could be looking to grab everything he can for himself. But instead seems much more interested in seeing his teammates score than himself.

Sampson’s UH program has an impressive track record with its non-star seniors having breakout seasons. See Chris Harris Jr. in 2019-20 and Justin Gorham in the Final Four season. Reggie Chaney could have expected — or even tried to demand — that kind of increased role in his last season at Houston.

Instead Chaney’s embraced being a bench player, the steady hand that Kelvin Sampson turns to in tough environments and when he feels his uber talented team needs some more toughness on the floor. Instead Chaney seems to get a kick out of being part of something bigger — the type of dream team that even this winning machine of a UH program isn’t likely to see the likes of again anytime soon.

This particular 24-2 Houston team is a rare combination of players. One that can make a 15 point road win seem rather routine — and never ever even close to in any doubt. And Reggie Chaney is no small part of the unselfish ethos that pulsates through this rare team.

“He’s a really unselfish dude,” Shead says of Chaney. “And I’m really glad he’s on this team.”

Shead shares that Chaney tells him how he wanted to hit Roberts (eight points, 10 rebounds) on that last play, how he’s sure he can do it the next time with a slight adjustment. Even Shead who plays plenty unselfish himself, has to shake his head a little at that one.

But that’s Reggie Chaney.

Chaney plays 18 minutes against SMU, only takes two shots (hitting them both), adds two steals, two rebounds and that perfect inside-out assist to UH’s best shooter. He’s averaging less than 14 minutes per game on the season, scoring less than three points per game. He’s dealt with injuries and a bothersome back. But he’s also contributing to one of the best college basketball teams in the land and he’s important to his teammates.

That seems to mean plenty to Reggie Chaney.

“We all can shoot. We all can pass. We all can just do things out of the ordinary that may seem natural at times.” — Tramon Mark on No. 2 Houston

UH’s Passing Passion and The Flash

Shead knows how unstoppable this Houston team can be when it’s moving the basketball with authority and hunting for the best shots. The 43 point first half against SMU when the Cougars take a 14 point lead into the break despite not even playing close to their best on defense is a prime example. The half ends up with Sampson scripting a perfect end of the half play in a timeout, clearing out the court for Shead to break down the defense. UH’s point guard and conscience runs the action to perfection driving in for a layup at the rim that drops in with only one second left on the first half clock.

“I put it in his hands because I thought he was playing harder than anybody else,” Sampson says of Shead. “We had some guys that wasn’t on top of their A Game effort wise. And that’s not acceptable.

“But that’s my standard. Some other guys have different standards and stuff like that. But Jamal, anytime the ball is in his hands, I always feel pretty good.”

The University of Houston Cougars beat the North Carolina A&T Aggies at the Fertitta Center
UH point guard Jamal Shead is one of the better passers in America. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Shead (13 points, eight assists) has now extended his impressive run to 49 assists and only seven turnovers in Houston’s last six games. That’s a 8.2 to 1.2 assist to turnover ratio. UH’s leader is already playing like its March.

So is Reggie Chaney — with ultimate unselfishness.

“Definitely the best offensive team,” UH junior guard Tramon Mark tells PaperCity when I ask if he feels this is the most talented team he’s been on at Houston. “We all can shoot. We all can pass. We all can just do things out of the ordinary that may seem natural at times.

“Everybody has their skills and combining them when we’re all together on the floor is a good thing for the team.”

Jarace Walker can certainly flash skills that seem to come from another world. Walker can jump out like the lights at a rave club. On this night, the 19-year-old skies high for a dunk that Dr. J could appreciate, almost posterizes another Mustang, hits two 3-pointers and adds a pull-up with a defender all over him that Kevin Durant would dig.

“He’s a freak of nature,” Sasser says of the super freshman. “He’s one of the best freshmen I’ve ever seen in person like this. It’s surprising sometimes. But it’s fun to have him on the team.”

It’s fun having Reggie Chaney on your team too. Even when he makes getting an assist off a pass to him almost impossible. For Chaney is always liable to try to make an even more unselfish play, no matter how easy you make a basket for him.

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