Culture / Sporting Life

In Nobody’s Shadow — DeJon Jarreau and Kelvin Sampson Bust the Syracuse Myth, Create Their Own UH Legacy, One That’s Even Sweeter Than Phi Slama Jama

Inside the Night That Put the University of Houston in the Elite Eight — A Masterpiece of a Game Plan and a Master Class in Teamwork

BY // 03.28.21

INDIANAPOLIS — The chant starts slowly, but then quickly reverberates around old Hinkle Fieldhouse, serenading a special team as it starts to walk towards the locker room, arms raised in the air. “Houston! Houston Houston!” It’s growing louder by the moment now. What a fitting final flourish. For Kelvin Sampson’s University of Houston team absolutely owned every bit of this night.

Why shouldn’t DeJon Jarreau, Quentin Grimes, Justin Gorham, Marcus Sasser and company be given the kind of call out that a victorious prize fighter receives walking out of the ring?

“I told you I was savage!” Jarreau shouted into a CBS camera moments earlier, right after the final buzzer’s sweet sound.

You can say that again — about every one of Sampson’s warriors, too.

Moment seized. Spotlight owned. Forty minutes from the Final Four.

“Once we started competing, it kind of took off,” Jarreau says afterwards. “And the game ended as it did. We had a comfortable lead. . .”

It ends with Houston 62, Syracuse 46 frozen on the scoreboard. It ends with this elite Houston team having controlled almost the entire game — outside of a brief stretch in the first half when Syracuse managed to tie things at 20. It ends with Jarreau and the Cougars still dancing, having put their once dismissed university into the Elite Eight for the first time in 37 years.

And now, the real fun begins with UH set to take on 12th seed Oregon State on Monday night at 6:15 pm for the right to go to the Final Four. This now 27-3 Houston team is about the furthest thing you can get from a Cinderella — even if so many national commentators forecast its doom against Syracuse’s famed 2-3 zone. These Cougars have been stalking a Final Four berth, aiming for it with every fiber in their being, since the very earliest days of preseason conditioning.

This isn’t a happy happenstance. This is the result of a meticulously executed master plan.

“We have business to accomplish,” Jarreau says. “We have a mission to accomplish.”

On this night, that revolves around showing America that Kelvin Sampson’s fierce (and creative) man-to-man defensive schemes can be even more fearsome than Jim Boeheim’s fawned over zone. One defense absolutely dominates this game — and it’s not Syracuse’s zone.

“I don’t care about that,” Sampson says when I ask if he felt UH’s defense almost became overlooked heading into the game with all the 2-3 zone chatter. “We’re not much of a storyline. We’re Houston. They’re Syracuse — Hall of Fame coach, their defense has been great for a long, long time. So rightfully so. But we play pretty good defense too.

“We just went about our business. Didn’t think to get into a war of words. Or try and outshine somebody. At the end of the day, it’s the competition. You’re trying to get your kids to compete.”

How’s this for competing? Houston holds Syracuse to a season-low 46 points on 28 percent shooting, 21.7 percent on 3-pointers (5 for 23), the Orange’s bread and butter. You can bet that stat line looks like a thing of priceless beauty to Kelvin Sampson and his excellent staff. Give this UH coaching staff five days to prepare for someone and the opponent might as well blindfold themselves.

“It’s the best defense that we’ve seen this year,” says Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who has seen the best of the ACC, one of those conferences that’s supposed to be a step above Houston if you listen to the national pundits.

Just ask Buddy Boeheim about Jarreau and Co’s relentless, unforgiving defense. The coach’s son came in as one of the stories of March, having scored at least 25 points in four straight games. Something Carmelo Anthony never even did at Syracuse. But that historic run goes right off the rails when faced with Jarreau’s long arms and Mensa level basketball IQ. Buddy Boeheim will get up 13 shots in 36 minutes and miss 10 of them, including eight of the nine 3-pointers he lets fly.

Meghan Markle could march outside of Buckingham Palace with a picket sign and still have more privacy from the paparazzi than Buddy Boeheim gets from DeJon Jarreau and his Cougar friends on this night. There are teething babies who are less latched on than Jarreau is to Syracuse’s Buddy.

Buddy Boeheim UH
Buddy Boeheim could never get it going against DeJon Jarreau and Houston’s defense. (Photo by Trevor Brown Jr/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

“We’re a great defensive team,” Jarreau says. “We trust in ourselves. We trust in the system our coaches have built here. . . Just being in the right position. Following the game plan. Our coaches — whoever have the scout for each game — come up with great game plans.”

Moment seized. Spotlight owned. Forty minutes from the Final Four.

Busting the Syracuse Zone

Nick Saban would be jealous of the game plan that Kelvin Sampson and his son/lead assistant Kellen Sampson come up with for Syracuse. This 65-year-old basketball lifer is one of the best coaches in basketball on any level. That can be seen in how confidently the Cougars attack the 2-3 Boeheim zone that’s completely confounded so many other teams this season.

Kelvin Sampson has his guys pass right into the middle of the zone — often to 6-foot-7 Houston “big man” Justin Gorham — creating multiple attack options. Gorham — or another big — can either drive to the hoop and stress the defense that way. Or more often, pass it right back out to the wings for open 3-pointers. Quentin Grimes, the UH star who continues to play like one of the five best players in America, hits four huge treys off these actions.

And Houston collects 15 assists on its 23 made baskets, showing how well Jarreau and Co. are moving the ball even in a defensive slugfest of a game.

In the end, Jarreau (nine points — all in the second half, eight assists and eight rebounds), Grimes (14 points and four assists), Gorham (13 points, 10 rebounds and two assists), Marcus Sasser (12 points and one turnover in a game-high 39 minutes played) and super freshman Tramon Mark (five quick points in a critical first half stretch) bust and burst Syracuse’s fabled zone as easily as a pipe went during Houston’s historic winter freeze.

It all leaves Jim Boeheim’s team as befuddled and out of sorts as Emma Watson on a Seth Rogen set. With their zone defense not quite working as expected, Syracuse becomes vulnerable to some fast break dashes from the speedier, surer Coogs. Including a alley-oop slam push where DeJon Jarreau finds Brison Gresham to punctuate a decisive 10-0 UH run to end the first half.

Houston vs Syracuse Kelvin Sampson
Kelvin Sampson has the University of Houston in the Elite Eight for the first time in 37 years. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Kelvin Sampson’s team will end up outscoring Syracuse 30-16 in the paint and 8-0 on the fastbreak. Jarreau’s late-game steal and well. . . savage breakaway slam that serves as a resounding exclamation point on Houston’s dominance checks off both categories. When Jarreau’s sneakers reconnect with earth, UH holds a 58-43 lead and the vision these Cougars have held all season is closer than ever. The point guard who drives so much for this Houston team lets out a guttural scream and motions for all the red-clad Houston fans in Hinkle, the home of Hoosiers and the fictional Jimmy Chitwood, to let loose.

Meghan Markle could march outside of Buckingham Palace with a picket sign and still have more privacy from the paparazzi than Buddy Boeheim gets from DeJon Jarreau and his Cougar friends on this night. There are teething babies who are less latched on than Jarreau is to Syracuse’s Buddy.

Jarreau’s done this type of thing before. The only difference is that now almost all of Houston is along for the ride.

Moment seized. Spotlight owned. Forty minutes from the Final Four.

This is the first University of Houston basketball team in the Elite Eight since the days Hakeem Olajuwon called Cullen Boulevard home. But in many ways, what this UH team of Jarreau, Grimes and Gorham is accomplishing is more impressive than the feats of Phi Slama Jama. Those Houston teams won with blinding star power, with having physical marvels who were among the best in basketball history. This UH team has put itself on the brink of college basketball nirvana in a very different way.

Those 1984 Cougars were high-flying showmen who overwhelmed you with next level talent. These 2021 Coogs are grinders. Battlers. Guys who out fight, out hustle and out smart foes.

“I think you should honor the past,” Sampson says. “But you should live in the present. Thirty seven years ago is irrelevant to our team. Our team is now. . . People should be heaping praise on this group of kids. This is about this group of kids. What they’ve accomplished.

“And what they’ve worked to accomplish. I’m proud of them.”

Moment seized. Spotlight owned. Forty minutes from the Final Four.

Into the UH Night

It is almost 1 am in Indianapolis (late Saturday night/early Sunday morning) when Houston’s buses finally pull away from the front of Hinkle Fieldhouse. Into the rain. Not that anyone on those buses cares about getting wet. Quentin Grimes gets the honor of smacking the placard with Houston on it into the Elite Eight spot on that oversized tournament bracket board that every team in the NCAA Tournament gets their turn with after a win.

“Thirty seven years ago is irrelevant to our team. Our team is now. . . People should be heaping praise on this group of kids. This is about this group of kids. What they’ve accomplished.” — UH coach Kelvin Sampson.

But even earlier in the night, you can already tell that Kelvin Sampson’s mind is racing ahead. To Monday night. To the challenge of an Oregon State team that’s now won six straight win-or-go-home games.

“I mean, it’s great,” Sampson says almost softly when asked yet another question about getting UH into the Elite Eight for the first time in nearly four decades. “But I’ve been so locked in on this Syracuse scouting report, it’s hard for me to switch channels right now. I’m still on Channel 37.

“I don’t know. . . I’m not downplaying or pooh-poohing anything. But it’s just hard for me to answer that right now. I feel exhausted. I’m so proud of our kids and their attention to detail. . . As soon as I leave here, I’m sure I’ll have Oregon State on my iPad. Start looking at them on the way to the hotel.”

You do not create one of the best stories in college basketball in a long, long time by dwelling in the past. Especially not when you’re on the doorstep of doing something behind historic. Something all this team’s own.

Moment seized. Spotlight owned. Forty minutes from the Final Four.

“Houston! Houston! Houston!”

DeJon Jarreau and Kelvin Sampson have their own soundtrack now — and it’s only getting louder.

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