Culture / Sporting Life

Another Coach Calls Houston a Final Four Team — the Best Story in College Basketball Has Marcus Sasser Playing Family Games and Kelvin Sampson Channeling Daryl Morey

Building For March One Win at a Time

BY // 01.10.21

Marcus Sasser will tell you he’s not the best shooter in his own family. He first offers that his uncle Jeryl Sasser, who won Western Athletic Player of the Year honors at SMU in 1999 and played a few seasons in the NBA for the Orlando Magic, is the Sasser with the purest shooting stroke. Then, he quickly revises that and crowns his dad, Marcus Sasser Sr., the family’s shooting champion.

Whether Marcus Sasser is being humble and differential in an age when young athletes are seldom both or is telling the truth, one thing is certain. The younger Marcus Sasser is one of the better shooters in college basketball today.

When he is on, the University of Houston’s basketball team can reach another level. Sasser is on against Tulane and an already vastly overmatched team is quickly overwhelmed. With Sasser hitting six of the seven 3-pointers he attempts in the first half, UH rolls to a 71-50 win.

In truth, Houston beats Tulane with or without a sizzling Sasser.  Ron Hunter’s young team has little chance of sticking with the 11th ranked team in the country over 40 minutes. But UH is likely going to need a game like this from Sasser at some point in March to reach its Final Four aspirations.

This type of shooting can make an already elite team almost untouchable.

“When they make shots like that from the perimeter, I don’t know how you can beat them,” Hunter says.

Sasser also hit big threes in Houston’s most impressive win of the season over a 10-3 Texas Tech team in a road worthy environment. These now 10-1 Cougars are chasing bigger prey than another American Athletic Conference title. Even if UH coach Kelvin Sampson would never be foolish enough to needlessly voice such a thing in January.

“I think he’s got a Final Four team,” Hunter says of Sampson. “I’m not putting pressure on him. But I’ve been around for a long time and that’s a really, really good basketball team.”

Houston’s players know they have the chance to do something truly special. This 10-1 start and lofty ranking has the Cougars anything but impressed with themselves.

“I still feel like we’ve got a way higher ceiling than what we’re reaching, what we’re achieving right now,” senior center Brison Gresham says. “I still think we should be 11-0. And defensively, I think we can just get way better.”

One of the most demanding coaches in America certainly agrees. Which is why Gresham found himself in Kelvin Sampson remedial rebounding school this week.

“Brison has been in my crosshairs the last few days,” Sampson says. “He’s not been rebounding to the level that we need him to — or he’s capable of. Before the game, I made a little bit of a historical comparison for him. This year versus last year. And where he needs to be.”

It goes without saying that there are no participation trophies in Sampson Land. This is not Ted Lasso. UH’s coach is not afraid to challenge any of his players to be better.

“It was simple really,” Gresham says of Sampson’s breakdown of his rebounding. “He just showed me my minutes last year — which were down, way down from this year. I think it was like 150 minutes I played last year and how many offensive rebounds I had. And I had like 200 minutes I played this year so far and there was no comparison — like how down my play was offensive rebounding wise.

“And that just made me look at the game different. Like I’m worrying about the wrong thing when I’m playing.”

It turns out you do not have to be Daryl Morey to effectively deploy advanced stats. Houston’s 65-year-old basketball lifer gives his starting center a stark, simple statistical analysis. And Gresham responds by grabbing a season-high five offensive rebounds against Tulane.

Again, the Cougars probably do not need a supercharged Brison Gresham to beat Tulane. After all, Justin Gorham (11 rebounds) is still doing his best Dennis Rodman impression and freshman forward J’Wan Roberts added eight rebounds in 19 minutes. But these types of games are about building for March for a team like UH.

Sampson picks up his first technical foul of the season with less than five minutes left in a 19-point game. Houston’s coach is incensed by a missed call that makes forward Reggie Chaney’s all-out hustle go unrewarded. Every minute of court time matters for a team with a real opportunity to do something big in March.

In this strange COVID-19 year, the Cougars are already almost halfway through their regular season with 11 games played. There are no extra moments. Sasser already seems to understand this.

Sasser Family 3-Point Shootout

Marcus Sasser can create his own shot as easily as a 15-year-old can whip together an Internet meme. On this day, he barely has to. Six of the eight triples Sasser hits against Tulane come on direct assists. He only has to hit two step backs in his career-high 28 point game.

The Cougars take full advantage of the matchup zone Hunter throws at them, swinging the ball and finding the open man.

When Marcus Sasser is the open man, almost any opposing team is going to look as lost as someone forced to try and explain Wonder Woman 1984‘s plot logically. After all, he’s been shooting a basketball almost as long as he can remember being. In many ways, shooting is a Sasser family business.

“We used to just play 3-Point Shootout a lot,” Marcus Sasser says when I ask about the family games. “And my family is real competitive. So if we lost, we’d say ‘Play Again.’ And just keep going and keep going.”

Now, Houston’s opponents are the ones pleading for Sasser to stop. Guarding Quentin Grimes, the talented ex-Kansas player who hits three straight treys in the second half himself, is hard enough. When Grimes (14 points), Sasser (who finishes 8-for-15 from distance) and even Idaho transfer Cameron Tyson (three triples in nine minutes) are all hitting, an already scary UH team becomes a complete nightmare for the rest of college basketball.

“I still feel like we’ve got a way higher ceiling than what we’re reaching, what we’re achieving right now. I still think we should be 11-0. And defensively, I think we can just get way better.” — Brison Gresham

There are few teams in the country in any power league that could lose the preseason conference player of the year like Houston has with Caleb Mills’ transfer decision — and seemingly not skip a beat. Of course, there surely will be days when UH misses a creative scorer like Mills. Which could make Tramon Mark getting 23 minutes of court time against Tulane one of the most overlooked keys of the day.

Mark is one of the highest-ranked recruits in UH basketball history — and early in the season, there were games when he looked like one of the most talented players on the court on either side. Including a key stretch of the Texas Tech game. Lately, a player who’s jumped out for most of his life has largely blended in, though. A COVID-19 absence and the long layoff it brings certainly contributed to that.

But Kelvin Sampson knows that this Houston team needs Mark to reach its full potential. UH’s coach has made a conscious decision to keep feeding Mark as many minutes as he can.

“Tramon’s a good player,” Sampson says. “He really is. He’s not the same as he was, but he’s getting closer. . . He needs the minutes. You know, he didn’t play great. He went one for eight (from the field). But that has nothing to do with the way he played. He was aggressive. He was looking for his shot.”

When Tramon Mark plays aggressive. the University of Houston is a much more dangerous team. (Courtesy UH Athletics)
When Tramon Mark plays aggressive. the University of Houston is a much more dangerous team. (Courtesy UH Athletics)

UH is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Sampson’s program is already one of the best stories of the season and it’s largely being talked about that way nationally even if some Houston media outlets have been slow to catch on. This is what a Final Four contender looks like.

With most of the sports world focused on the NFL Playoffs and Houston sports fans obsessing over what out-of-touch decision the Texans will make to annoy Deshaun Watson next, the Cougars almost quietly take another step. Swish after swish. Fierce rebound after fierce rebound.

Another Sasser is playing 3-Point Shootout, Kelvin Sampson is hitting his guys with statistics they cannot ignore and one of the most talented freshmen in the country is reenergizing. If this keeps up, Marcus Sasser might even finally get bragging rights at the family dinner table.

Maybe. A shooter can dream.

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