Culture / Sporting Life

Forever Together Coogs — How NCAA Bubble Life, DeJon Jarreau’s Injury and Connect 4 Have Made Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Team Even Stronger

And Why Tramon Mark is the Ultimate Secret Smile Weapon

BY // 03.21.21

INDIANAPOLIS — Naptown is anything but snuggled and quiet this weekend. Downtown Indianapolis is filled with college basketball fans. Walk 10 feet and you’ll run into 10 different sets of school colors. The line outside St. Elmo Steak House, the city’s longtime signature restaurant, stretches down the street. And inside, the bar is packed with hardly a mask in sight. But the University of Houston basketball team is living a very different Indianapolis reality.

If the city is Party Town USA, the Cougars are family game night. Well, “family” in the sense of a team unit. UH’s players cannot have any face-to-face interaction with their actual families, the ones in Indianapolis to watch them play. Instead, they’re limited to their one designated hotel floor unless they’re doing an approved team activity such as practice or hitting the weight room.

Otherwise, their world is pretty much that one floor of the hotel.

“Before the games started coming on, there was a lot of team bonding,” UH guard Marcus Sasser says of life in the NCAA’s version of a bubble. “We were in each other’s rooms, playing board games. Just joking around, playing video games. But now that games are on, we’re just in each other’s rooms, watching basketball.

“Now that we’re in the bubble, it’s just a lot of team bonding going on. Just getting closer with each other as the tournament goes on.”

Houston (25-3) plays Rutgers (16-11) Sunday night, knowing that a win will push the Cougars into the Sweet 16 — and extend their stay in the bubble for at least another week (the first Sweet 16 games do not tip off till Saturday, March 27). For some teams that may be something in a daunting challenge in itself. Just like the NBA bubble caused some less than harmonious teams (see the Clippers and the Rockets) to splinter apart, while other together units like the Miami Heat advanced further than expected, this NCAA bubble brings its own unique challenges.

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One that could have a major impact on who ultimately cuts down the nets on April 5.

“This is where it gets real now,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman tells PaperCity. “Everybody knows we’re playing for something a lot bigger. So I think everybody’s willing to make that sacrifice for the next couple weeks. And hopefully, we’re able to stay in the bubble for a long time so we can keep playing.”

“It will be good to have him (against Rutgers). He’s our leader. He’s a great point guard. He gets everybody involved and he gets the team going.” — Marcus Sasser on DeJon Jarreau

If anything, the NCCA’s COVID protocols are likely to only intensity and become even more strict after positive COVID tests within the VCU program forced the Rams to withdraw on Saturday, creating the first no contest game of the tournament. Not to mention the type of headlines that the NCAA is doing everything it can to avoid. Which could mean a lot more UNO and Connect 4 for the Cougars.

Yes, right along with the expected Madden and NBA 2K video game duels, Sasser and Co. have taken to old school battles of UNO and Connect 4 to pass the time between team events.

Even before it entered the NCAA Tournament bubble, this Houston group stood out as one of the closest teams in America. “We don’t have one jealous soul on the whole team,” guard Quentin Grimes says. “We just want to see everybody succeed and that makes it kind of even better, celebrating with your teammates.”

Or beating them with a sweet triple reverse in UNO.

UNO and a One of a Kind Tramon Mark

Who new that analog games could play a role in determining which teams have staying power in 2021?

Well, that and some big bracket fun. The rest of the Cougars called for a still hurting DeJon Jarreau to be the one to advance Houston’s name on the big bracket board — a bit of ceremony every team gets to do after a win in the Big Dance — in the wake of the round one romp over Cleveland State. It was a fitting nod of respect to a team leader who found himself sidelined just 41 seconds into his last NCAA Tournament. Jarreau stuck the Houston placard into the open Round of 32 slot with flourish, too.

Now, UH’s orchestrator is expected to try and give it to a go in pregame warmups against Rutgers, hurting hip-pointer and all. Jarreau tweeted about not missing the game himself just after midnight Saturday night/Sunday morning.

“It will be good to have him (against Rutgers),” Sasser says. “He’s our leader. He’s a great point guard. He gets everybody involved and he gets the team going.”

What strength Jarreau will be at is another major question, but it looks like the Coogs will be all together again against Rutgers. With any together group, it helps to have someone who is happily oblivious to it all, providing comic relief with the force of his personality. For this Houston team, that just may be Tramon Mark, the ultra talented 19-year-old freshman.

Mark sometimes does not even know when Sampson is yelling at him. Or tryin to yell at him. It’s hard to stay mad at Tramon Mark.

“When I’d get on Tramon early in the year, he didn’t know what I was doing,” Sampson laughs when I ask about Mark’s natural confidence. “He didn’t know I was getting on him. I said, ‘Son, do you understand you’re getting your ass chewed out right now? Son, do you understand where you are?’

“That’s just kind of the way he was. But there’s something endearing about him. Because he’s so honest. So honest. And pure.”

NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament – First Round
Tramon Mark can create plenty of offense for Houston. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

There are some practices where Sampson barking out “Dickinson!” — the name of the high school outside of Houston that Mark went to and what the coach often calls UH’s future star — is the almost constant soundtrack. Of course, there are also plenty of practices where Mark drives Quentin Grimes, DeJon Jarreau and Marcus Sasser crazy for completely different reasons. Because they’re having all kinds of trouble trying to guard him.

“I’ve seen him wear out Quentin Grimes,” Sampson says. “I’ve seen him wear out DeJon. Some days I’d wear out Marcus, Quentin and DeJon — I’d put them on the line (to run sprints for giving up baskets to the freshman) and wear them out. Because they couldn’t guard Tramon.”

During these instances, Mark himself would just be grinning on side as the more experienced Cougar guards were sent running. “He liked the fact that he was making them run,” Sampson says. “I said, ‘I wish you liked the fact that you were four for five from the field and you got four assists and no turnovers.’ Quit being happy that you’re making them run.

“Understand what it is you’re doing. . .”

Sampson cannot even complete the sentence before he’s laughing again. Tramon Mark can have that effect on a coach. Even one who’s won 664 games.

Yes, it’s good to have a Tramon Mark personality in the bubble. It could be even better to have him against a Rutgers team that likes to muck things up and make games ugly to win. No matter how limited or not DeJon Jarreau is. The 6-foot-6, natural handle Mark is capable of giving UH’s offense bolts of creativity and pace. He has a way of slipping inside and getting to the rim. Or anywhere else he want to get on the floor.

The other Houston guards have seen that from the first day of practice.

“Every day in practice everything is a competition,” Sasser says. “I’ve been knowing Tramon is a real good player from the jump. He gives us problems all the time in practice. It’s no surprise to me.”

Every together team needs a talented character. That  — and a good game room. Or 10.

Let the rest of Indianapolis party it up like COVID almost even isn’t here (it very much is). These Cougars will stay in their NCAA bubble, stay on their one floor in their downtown hotel, stay together for the moments to come.

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