Culture / Sporting Life

Houston Earned This No. 2 Seed, Now it Plays For True National Respect — Kelvin Sampson’s Team is Prepared to Take What It Wants

UH's Incredible Program Resurrection is Not Just a Great Story Anymore — It's About an Elite Team On a Mission

BY // 03.15.21

FORT WORTH — They watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show in the locker room they’re using at Dickies arena, personal pizza boxes and empty Gatorade bottles at their feet. Kelvin Sampson’s University of Houston players are still wearing their American Athletic Conference Champions T-shirts and hats. Sitting bunched together in the kind of folding chairs that no one ever describes as comfortable.

The usual Selection Sunday crowd of family, friends, university bigwigs and reporters are nowhere to be found. A lone team videographer, approved to be part of the semi bubble the Cougars are in, captures the scene.

Things are not always so glamorous in these COVID times, but that cannot dull the impact of this moment. Houston is a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Just seven years after Sampson took over a program that was more dormant than a dead raccoon. In the early days, Sampson needed to recruit students to attend the games. His daughter Lauren Sampson, the UH program’s boundlessly enthusiastic director of external operations, would take her dad into the dorms. To the doorsteps of fraternity and sorority houses. Right into classrooms.

And one of the best coaches in college basketball would ask kids much younger than this own to pretty please maybe consider showing up at a game or two.

Now, UH and Kelvin Sampson are not asking for anything. They’re taking things for Houston. Like a conference tournament championship won with a 91-54 annihilation of Cincinnati. Like this No. 2 seed secured with a season so dominant that it left the selection committee little choice but to recognize it.

“We got what he earned,” Sampson says.

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What Houston earned screams out that it’s one of the best teams in America, a real contender for the Final Four and the national championship. The days of Sampson’s program being any type of Cinderella are long gone. Still, earning a No. 2 seed is no small feat.

The last time the University of Houston did it, it had Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the single greatest basketball players of all time, on the team. Kelvin Sampson’s two seed comes under a considerably higher degree of difficulty.

This Cougar Sunday — hoisting a big trophy in the air under a rainstorm of confetti, getting the type of top seed UH’s record (24-3) and advanced metrics (No. 5 in the nation in the final Net Rankings) say it should get — is just more sweet confirmation.

“We knew it was coming, it just was a matter of when,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman tells PaperCity. “And I’m so happy for (Kelvin) and the kids because they’ve been through a lot. To get a chance to enjoy this — and have the confetti and do all the things that you get to see other people do. . . and enjoy that.

“And I tell you what, as you look ahead, you know what it means. And it makes it even more special when you’re fighting for it in the future.”

These Cougars are tournament tested heading into the tournament they’ve been waiting and working towards all season. Heck, since last March when COVID canceled the Big Dance fun for everyone. Houston may be a No. 2 seed, but this is a team that still believes it has much more to prove.

“I feel like coming in people may kind of overlook Houston,” Quentin Grimes, the Most Outstanding Player of the AAC tourney, says. “I feel like they kind of push us to the side a little bit. But we know how good we are.

“We know the type of team we are. How tough we are. And I feel like this is kind of a great opportunity to put Houston on the map. And kind of show that we’re one of the powerhouses in America.”

True national respect is also taken.

The only team in the entire 68-team field with more wins than Houston’s 24 this season is 26-0 Gonzaga, the consensus No. 1 overall seed. Yet, many college basketball analysts talk more glowingly about three seed Texas’ chances of making a Final Four run than Houston’s in the wake of the bracket reveal. UH did get an entire section front of the Houston Chronicle, its home city’s newspaper, this Monday morning and more inside, but it shared billing with the six other Texas teams that made the field. Only one of which (22-2 Baylor) is seeded above the Cougars.

Programs like Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina do not share anything. They take. Like Houston did in grabbing this high seed with the single-minded ferocity of a ticked off wolverine in heat. Sampson’s been talking to his team about what it would take for the Cougars to get a high NCAA Tournament seed all season. He does not bring it up in public. But this is no happy accident.

It’s the result of a careful plan that’s been executed with relentless effort.

“You earn it,” Sampson says. “It’s not like we bought it. Or that we got the most money so we can go buy it. We earned it. Nobody gave it to us. We earned it.”

Kelvin Sampson Goes to Bloomington

Of course, this being the NCAA, with decision makers who seemingly sometimes schedule with a mischievous glint in their eyes, this No. 2 seed comes with a twist. Houston will open up against Cleveland State at 6:15 pm Friday in Bloomington, Indiana’s Assembly Hall. Of course, that is where Sampson used to patrol the sidelines, coaching Indiana University for a few seasons. Until being forced out of college basketball because the NCAA found him guilty of making many more phone calls to recruits than were allowed under the rules then.

Sampson’s infractions seem almost quaint when compared to the FBI wiretapping, paying players scandals of today, but the basketball lifer paid a beyond heavy price for them. Now, he returns to Bloomington to play a Cleveland State team that toppled the Hoosiers and Bobby Knight in one of the NCAA Tournament’s most epic and infamous upsets ever.

Of course, this 15th seeded Cleveland State team is not that Cleveland State team. If the Cougars dispatch of the Vikings, they’ll get the winner of Clemson-Rutgers in the second round on Sunday. A borderline elite San Diego State team and a Bob Huggins’ West Virginia squad that now fully embraces the power of the three are potential Sweet 16 opponents.

“It’s not like we bought it. Or that we got the most money so we can go buy it. We earned it. Nobody gave it to us. We earned it.” — UH coach Kelvin Sampson

Not that Sampson’s team will be looking ahead. This is a group that’s taken it step by step, attacking every one of them, all season. Run back that scene of the Cougars watching the selection show in that locker room, again. There are no crazy reactions. Sure, Grimes, Justin Gorham, Fabian White Jr. and Brison Gresham hold up their phones to record Houston’s name popping up off the TV. And there’s some minor, semi boisterous yelling.

But it’s mostly taken in stride. Senior point guard DeJon Jarreau does not even get up off his chair. A flight straight to Indianapolis (no returning to Houston) and the beginning of the mandatory quarantine that all teams must go into on arrival is already beckoning Monday. Let everyone else obsess over the bracket. Or the fact both Duke and Kentucky are out of the field. Sampson’s guys have work to do.

“It’s a business trip,” Jarreau says of the NCAA run to come (all of which will be in Indiana). “We’re going down there to try and take care of business. Try to make this run and try to bring a championship back to Houston. ”

One Trophy Down, One to. . .

Jarreau got to jump on the scorer’s table after the romp over Cincinnati. He got a piece of the Dickies Arena net — and all that confetti in the air. He got to lift the conference championship trophy after struggling for a second with it. (The AAC’s hardware is surprisingly weighty.)

Now, UH’s pacesetter figures the mini party is done. It’s time to get back to the mission that Houston has been methodically plotting out all season. The University of Houston’s basketball program is right where it expected to be on this March Monday.

After not being anywhere at all for so long. Before Sampson.

“I knew how bad it was,” the coach says. “There’s no guarantee this thing was going to get turned around, it was so bad. And the thing that drove me — and I appreciate everybody on the wagon with us now — but the thing that drove me back then was the apathy.

“It doesn’t take much to motivate me. It doesn’t take much to activate this chip I have on my shoulder. It doesn’t take much. You’re either with us or against us. And if you’re against us, we’re still going to do it anyway.”

“I feel like coming in people may kind of overlook Houston. I feel like they kind of push us to the side a little bit. But we know how good we are.” — UH guard Quentin Grimes

Sampson and the Cougars do it again on this unusual Selection Sunday, wiping out Cincinnati to give the selection committee one last look at how dominant they can be. Afterwards, Kelvin Sampson cuts down the last bit of net still on the basket, a large swath, and waves it in the air, whipping it here and there while still high on the ladder. Jarreau, Grimes and Co. howl.

Houston’s AD hovers back, soaking it all in. Marveling at the moment. And the coaching  job.

“It’s nice to be able to watch Coach and those kids cut down those nets,” Pezman says. “They earned it. And it’s been a long year, so it makes it even more special.”

This Houston team is taking the moment, while taking the mission to a new level. This is not a program that’s given anything. Ever. Never has been. But it’s here, on the big stage now, grabbing for more — and more. Kelvin Sampson has always known how to reach for more than anyone else could see.

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