Culture / Sporting Life

Renu Khator Wowed by the Real Benefits Of UH’s No. 1 Ranking — Houston’s President Sees Kelvin Sampson’s Impact Reaching Far Beyond Basketball

Super Frosh Jarace Walker Finds His Relentlessness and Bama Beckons, But This Program's About Much More Than That

BY // 12.07.22

A chunk of the University of Houston student section breaks into a chant of “We Want Bama! We want Bama!” as Kelvin Sampson’s players come over to offer their customary postgame thanks for the students’ support. And Renu Khator cannot help but take in the excitement happening all around her. UH’s chancellor and president happily threw T-shirts into the student section earlier in the evening, clearly enjoying every minute of the single best sports scene in the nation’s fourth largest city at the moment.

Yes, Khator knows that having the No. 1 ranked team in America in a sport as high profile as college basketball is a ride that needs to be treasured.

“I think it puts us on the national map,” Khator tells PaperCity. “It gives us a national spotlight. And I think it brings attention to Houston. And not just for athletics. But to all our academic programs. So it’s very special.”

Khator sees that UH basketball excitement in increased applications to the school and donor giving.

“Even if they are giving to academic programs and not athletics, there is always that conversation about No. 1 basketball,” Khator says. ” ‘Oh wow, basketball.’ From these things, I can say it absolutely makes a difference.”

On this Tuesday night, Khator and her husband Suresh, an associate dean in the UH Cullen College of Engineering, are in their customary front row seats to watch Sampson’s No. 1 ranked team dismantle North Florida 72-46. Yes, that Saturday national TV ABC game with No. 8 Alabama is beckoning.

But a night when super freshman Jarace Walker displays the rebounding intensity and all-out energy that Kelvin Sampson has been pushing for is nothing to dismiss. A 12 point, 10 rebound, three assist and three steal line from Walker is no footnote. Neither is moving to 9-0 with six of UH’s opponents failing to reach 50 points and none of the nine scoring more than 56.

Then again, Khator will tell you that every day with No. 1 next to UH is something to appreciate. The school president even sees a direct link between the Houston volleyball team’s Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 and the basketball program’s sustained success under Sampson.

“When you have your one program do so well, it basically inspires everybody,” Khator tells PaperCity. “It sets a different level of standard. You won’t be surprised to see all of the programs starting to show their muscle. Show their excellence.

“Volleyball, obviously a good coach. A good team. And they play with the same type of spirit.”

Kelvin Sampson’s spirit never changes. No matter the setting. Or what is going on around him. UH’s basketball lifer of a coach believes every game matters. This one against North Florida allows him to experiment with a few different lineups, including playing senior forward Reggie Chaney and 19-year-old jumping machine Ja’Vier Francis (14 points and four blocks in 19 minutes) together in the front court. Tramon Mark gets plenty of time at point guard, displaying his ability to get into the lane again and again. And freshman gunner Emanuel Sharp (nine points on three triples) enjoys some extended minutes with starting point guard Jamal Shead (10 assists, zero turnovers in 25 minutes).

But that is largely done after Shead, Marcus Sasser and Jarace Walker have already secured the game. Sasser rips off 12 points in eight minutes before leaving to get five stitches on what Sampson describes as a “nasty” cut above his left eye. The preseason All-American guard never returns. All the better to get ready for Alabama.

When Walker plays like this, Sasser can be given the luxury of some extra time. The built 6-foot-8, 240-pound freshman shows off the entire range of his game in one early first half spree. First, Walker drives the baseline for an athletic layup. Then he hits a long jumper, his foot just touching the 3-point line. He follows that with an offensive rebound put back, combining effort with those skills that jump out at anyone who watches Jarace Walker for any length of time.

“I think the guy I was most pleased with tonight is Jarace,” Sampson says. “He played hard.”

Just the game before, in that 53-48 win over a good Saint Mary’s team, the high-profile freshman only managed three rebounds and two points (on 1 for 7 shooting). Rebounding means more than one thing in Kelvin Sampson’s program.

“The other night against Saint Mary’s, he just wasn’t. . .,” Sampson says when I ask about Walker. “He didn’t play as tough as we needed him to play.

“You’ve got to learn to play tough. It’s not about talent.”

University of Houston freshman forward Jarace Walker is already showing how much of an impact player he can be. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston freshman forward Jarace Walker is already showing how much of an impact player he can be. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Jarace Walker proving to be a quick study in the Sampson ways may be the most encouraging sign of all heading into Alabama. And that monster game at No. 3 Virginia — a game the entire college basketball world will be fixated on — a week later.

This is a Houston team built for these kind of games. While there will be more TV cameras and columnists finding their way to the UH campus with the help of their phone’s GPS for the Alabama game, and a platoon of NBA scouts in the Fertitta Center stands, the extra attention is not what figures to get Sampson’s guys going. The memory of losing 83-82 in a beyond emotional game at Alabama last December, a loss sealed by the referees not calling a potential Crimson Tide goaltending at the final buzzer surely will do it for the players like Sasser, Shead, Chaney, Mark and J’Wan Roberts who lived it.

“When you have your one program do so well, it basically inspires everybody. It sets a different level of standard.” — Houston president Renu Khator on UH basketball’s No. 1 ranking and sustained success.

Kelvin Sampson certainly is not going to play up any Top 10 showdown hype.

“You guys care about storylines,” Sampson says. “I could care less. I wouldn’t care if we were ranked 350 and they were ranked 340.

“. . . I just want to beat Alabama.”

Renu Khator, Kelvin Sampson and the Power of Rankings

Rankings are for fans. And presidents. And everyone else around the program excited by them.

The 67-year-old coach who’s turned the Fertitta Center into the only place in Houston sports that really matters when the Astros aren’t in season is more excited by seeing Jarace Walker start to play with a little relentlessness. Kelvin Sampson is more jazzed by the idea of what Emanuel Sharp may be able to become.

“Look at all the trials and tribulations he’s been through,” Sampson says of Sharp, who saw his senior season of high school ended by a horrific leg injury. “Look at tonight. He’s better. He’s a much better player today than he was a month ago. But any time I get Emanuel minutes like tonight, it’s an investment in our future.”

This is a coach. Not a showman. He’s building a team. Game by game. Practice by practice. Like always. Not coming up with the script for a hot reality show.

“I think our secret sauce is player development,” Sampson says.

That makes those 22 minutes for Top 50 freshman Terrance Arceneaux and 19 minutes apiece for Sharp and Francis in this 34 point win over North Florida arguably the most underrated stat of all.

“Who will replace Marcus (Sasser next season)?” Sampson says. “I don’t know. (Emanuel’s) going to have a chance. Doesn’t mean he will. Depends on how much better he gets.”

Sampson motions towards Sharp, a freshman who is starting to gain his coach’s attention.

“Just to get in-game shots during practice,” Sharp says when I ask him how he feel he’s improving. “Just to get comfortable shooting those type of shots. So that when I’m in the game — and I know Jamal is going to be looking for me. And I know Tramon is going to be looking for me.

“It makes me that much of a better player being out there with them and taking those kind of shots.”

That’s the hard work that leads to the moments. Moments like a packed student section chanting “We want Bama!” during a postgame tradition that began with Kelvin Sampson wanting his players to reward the few students who used to show up to games when this program resurrector first arrived on campus. Moments like the president of the university happily throwing T-shirts into the stands of a packed on-campus arena.

Yes, Bama and plenty more national attention is coming. But even a Tuesday night against North Florida is a party at the Fertitta Center these days. It’s not about one game or moment with Kelvin Sampson’s program. It hasn’t been for a long time.

“We’re here to stay,” Khator says.

Just another day in UH’s hard-built basketball paradise.

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