Culture / Sporting Life

Freak DeJon Jarreau Injury Could Cripple Houston’s Final Four Visions — Hip Trouble Overshadows Round One Romp

Injured Team-First Point Guard Still Pulls His Guys Together, But UH Will Have to Look to Others Now

BY // 03.19.21

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Everything changes for the University of Houston’s powerhouse basketball team just 41 seconds into its first NCAA Tournament game. Assembly Hall is a storied old arena where strange things seem to happen (see the Bobby Knight chair throw). And there is DeJon Jarreau, the dynamic point guard who Sampson calls Houston’s Most Valuable Player, getting knocked hard on his hip before this 2021 NCAA Tournament is even a minute old for UH.

From the first moment Jarreau heads to the sidelines, it’s apparent it’s bad. Maybe even crippling to the sixth ranked team in the country’s once beyond legitimate chances of making the Final Four.

Sometimes, it’s not just about surviving and advancing. Even in the NCAA Tournament. For Houston destroys an overmatched Cleveland State team in the second half, rolling to a 87-56 victory without Jarreau.

But this tournament isn’t about one first round game for one of the best teams in the country. UH has very long term plans for this Big Dance. Starting with Sunday’s second round matchup with a major conference foe, things are about to get a lot more difficult for the now 25-3 Cougars. Without Jarreau, Houston’s margin for error drastically shrinks.

For now, there is at least public uncertainty about Jarreau’s status. Whether he can play Sunday seems in serious doubt — with beyond that, if Houston advances, anyone’s guess.

“I do know that he has a hip pointer,” Sampson says when I ask about Jarreau’s status in the postgame. “DeJon’s not a real meaty guy anyway. He’s kind of bony. Hip pointer for him is gonna be a little bit more severe than, say, (for) me or you.”

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The still skinny, almost slinky-like Jarreau is in obvious pain from the moment he takes the hit Friday night. At first, he sits in the bleachers on the Assembly Hall end line that serves as Houston’s bench in this Big Dance of social distancing. Forward Justin Gorham and assistant coach Kellen Sampson come over to commiserate with Jarreau and clasp him on the shoulder before heading into a timeout. Eventually, Jarreau retreats to the locker room with head trainer John Houston for several minutes, but when the two men emerge it is clear Jarreau will not be playing anymore in this opening round game.

After being in obvious pain and distress for most of the first half, Jarreau spends the second half enthusiastically cheering on his teammates, a white towel over his shoulders. He comes out onto the floor to talk to the second half starters right before the second half begins. And after the game, Jarreau is the one pulling the entire Houston team together again, giving them a message before they retreat to the locker room.

“This team respects him so much,” Sampson says of Jarreau. “This is a very close-knit team. Great kids. I love coaching this team. That’s one of the great things about this tournament. You know everybody’s season is going to end here in a little while. Whether it’s this weekend, next weekend or the following weekend. You’re not going to be able to do this much longer.

“But every day we get together to practice is a blessing for me.”

If you think Sampson sounds a little more melancholy after the opening round of the tournament than one might expect. . . well, that is what losing your coach on the floor inside the first minute of his last NCAA Tournament can do to you. If you know Sampson, you know there is no one he feels worse for than DeJon Jarreau.

“It’s tough,” UH guard Quentin Grimes says of the sudden loss of Jarreau. “DeJon is our defensive player of the year. He’s our leader. . .”

A Different UH

The Cougars play a little understandably shocked in the first 15 minutes in the wake of Jarreau’s absence. But that gives way to complete dominance in the second half. Sampson’s team could have named its score in the final 20 minutes. Grimes scores 18 points without ever having to take over the game. Tramon Mark, the young uber talent who will be thrust into the starting lineup without Jarreau, puts up 15 points. And Marcus Sasser (14 points), Fabian White Jr. (12 points), Justin Gorham (10 points) and Brison Gresham (10 points) round out the effort of six double digit scorers.

It all leaves Cleveland State coach Dennis Gates marveling at a different level of basketball. One that Gates is sure deserved an even higher seed than a two.

“They did an unbelievable job,” Gates said of the no-Jarreau Cougars. “That’s a No. 1 seed. I truly believe that team is a No. 1 seed. They can score the basketball in every which way possible. They score in three areas: On the free-throw line, behind the three-point line and in the paint. They do a great job defensively of not fouling.”

Still, this is not the same Houston offense. Even with 87 points. Not the same ball movement. Without Jarreau, the Cougars only get 12 assists on their 29 baskets. That’s a far cry from the 20-plus assists UH has been consistently racking up  in recent games with Jarreau orchestrating everything.

Sampson and his staff make enough adjustments at halftime to ensure the last 20 minutes are a complete runaway, freeing up Mark to create and using their inside advantage against a Cleveland State team that struggles on the boards. Now, it looks like they’ll have to come up with that type of different gameplan for Sunday night’s game against Rutgers, a bruising, physical Big Ten team that is anything but a typical No. 10 seed.

All because Jarreau took a shot in the wrong place on Houston’s first defensive possession of the game. There is no rhyme or reason in March. Often, no fairness either.

“Our kids were nervy, maybe even staggered when Jarreau went down,” Sampson admits.

University of Houston Cougar basketball team hosted the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston forward Fabian White Jr. is suddenly even more of an X-Factor for Houston. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

With Houston searching for answers and Cleveland State finding at least a little confidence, a somewhat unexpected source of steady power emerges. Fabian White Jr., the senior forward whose surprising comeback from an ACL injury in the midst of this season showed more guts than a New Yorker fighting for a parking spot, scores eight first half points. White helps make sure the Cougars never find any serious trouble.

“Our front line was amazing today,” Grimes says. “They really set the tone for today. They led by example — and led by communication too. Just showing.”

Without Jarreau, White could have to be even more of an X-Factor for the Cougars to keep advancing. This Houston team was going to beat this Cleveland State team almost no matter what happened. Even on a day when Ohio State, a much more trendy No. 2 seed Final Four pick than Houston, gets knocked out by THE Oral Roberts. That almost no matter what is not what is important to Sampson, though.

Neither is the fact that this win ties Sampson with no less than UCLA legend John Wooden on the all-time career victories list. In Assembly Hall, where Sampson coached before he was forced out of the college game for making more phone calls to recruits than allowed under NCAA rules at that time. A rule — and a punishment — that seems beyond out of whack considered the number of big name coaches who have been implicated in the FBI wiretapping scandal — that centers around paying players to attend certain schools — who have gone largely completely unpunished.

No one needs to remind Kelvin Sampson that every March is precious. This is coach who knows this tournament is really about the moments.  To him, this is one too. Seeing his guys, this team he loves so much, come together under adversity still means plenty to UH’s basketball lifer of a coach.

Nothing in March is guaranteed. The University of Houston gets a cruel reminder of that just 41 seconds into its tournament. DeJon Jarreau is down and the Cougars go on, with him pleading for them to take it as far as they can.

DeJon Jarreau can keep pushing his guys while sidelined. But someone else will have to carry the load.

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