Culture / Sporting Life

Inside JoJo Tugler’s Grow-Up Moment For No. 4 Houston — A Fearless 18-Year-Old Lifts Jamal Shead, Makes Beating Texas One to Build On

Cy Falls Set This Freshman Forward Up For Immediate College Basketball Success in UH's Nationally Elite Program

BY // 02.01.24

AUSTIN — Before the 40 strong Jamal Shead contingent can let loose, before University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman can turn to the red-clad Cougar fans and shout “Whose house?” in the University of Texas’ $375 million Moody Center, an 18-year-old must have his grow-up moment. JoJo Tugler grabs his, using his endless arms to snag an offensive rebound and power it back in for a three point UH lead.

Forced into the heat of an overtime rivalry game with usual starting center Ja’Vier Francis fouled out, Tugler makes one of the biggest plays of the entire night in the extra session. Arguably the biggest. Tugler’s already grown an inch since he arrived on the Houston campus as a 6-foot-7 forward with a wingspan (7-foot-6) worthy of a small jet, but he grew even more in this showcase game.

While much of the attention centered on Houston point guard Jamal Shead’s refuse-to-lose 25-point, eight-rebound, four-assist homecoming to the Austin area — for good reason — Tugler’s play makes this 76-72 brushback of UT more than another statement win for Kelvin Sampson’s proud and proven Top 10 Houston program. It makes it one to grow on.

“JoJo is a quick learner on the things he’s good at,” Sampson tells PaperCity. “He struggles in some areas, but offensive rebounds is not one of them. . . JoJo has a winning DNA. His coach over at Cy Falls, Rich Flores, does an awesome job. I love him. He runs a great program. It helped JoJo to come from that program to our program.

“JoJo is going to be so good. And Ja’Vier is going to take another. . . All our younger guys are going to take another step up. And we found some things (against Texas).”

That is hardly a comforting thought to future Houston opponents with the Cougars already sitting atop the Big 12 standings with a 19-2 overall, 6-2 conference record heading into Saturday afternoon’s national showcase game at Kansas. Much like Tugler himself, this UH team is still on a growth plan.

“Man, all these guys keep surprising me day in and day out,” Jamal Shead says when I ask about Tugler’s overtime put back. “And I’m just loving seeing their growth and how they’re bought in. JoJo made a huge play. And I love his focus and what he’s doing. Like you said, a Grow Up Moment. And he had one at the best time.”

Cy Falls High School coach Rich Flores knew JoJo had done something big as soon as he woke up the next morning and looked at his phone. “There were quite a few texts on my phone,” Flores tells PaperCity. “So I got on my phone right away and texted my assistant, ‘Man what did JoJo do? Because my phone had a lot of texts in the morning.’ And then everybody was talking about it.”

JoJo Tugler did what JoJo Tugler does — compete ferociously hard and never stop chasing the basketball. With Francis fouled out, Tugler felt a responsibility. One he took personally.

“Step up,” Tugler says of what he told himself. “With Ja out, it’a Step Up Moment. If he had been playing, Ja would have gotten (the rebound). He was going for it. He was tagging. I was going to catch it with two hands. Miss it with one, catch it two.”

With a packed Moody Center screaming at him, Tugler does not just catch up to the errant shot. He powers it back in, gives the fourth ranked team in America a needed jolt,

Back at Cy Falls, Rich Flores is not surprised. “I was texting (UH assistant coach) Kellen (Sampson) about that UT game,” Flores says. “And I said. ‘Look, it doesn’t matter if it’s blacktop or a big game with asses in the stands.’ I told him it doesn’t matter because Joseph is going to compete. And he’s fearless. And he’s not afraid of anything.”

Shead, the fourth year point guard who is making a stronger and stronger Big 12 Player of the Year case by the game, is also very unafraid. Shead grew up about 15 miles from the UT campus in Manor and a cheering contingent a good 40 people strong met at his parents Lysa and Elvin Shead’s house before the game before heading over to the arena.

“It’s fun for family to see,” Lysa Shead says.

With Shead setting the stage, contagious passing — sharing the ball and the responsibility — is a way of life for this Houston team. Emanuel Sharp (13 points, eight rebounds) turns down a jumper to hit Ja’Vier Francis for a baseline dunk. Shead finds J’Wan Roberts (14 points, eight rebounds, two blocks) cutting down the lane on a Houston breakout and Roberts almost immediately hits Mylik Wilson inside for a twisting layup. Kelvin Sampson’s team believes in the hockey assist, the pass before the pass that becomes the official assist.

Tugler is into this kind of basketball — and he knows what this win on UT’s home floor meant to his point guard nicknamed Manor Mal, who hit back-to-back threes with Houston wobbling in the second half.

“It meant everything for everybody,” Tugler tells PaperCity. “Winning. We trying to keep winning. I don’t know how to explain it. Winning. Nobody like losing. But I know Mal wanted it big. Wanted it big time.”

Tugler helps Shead close it out with that overtime offensive rebound, his fourth offensive rebound of the game. This true freshman is a rebounding savant in many ways. Tugler has an instinct for which way a ball will bounce off the rim, a knack honed by studying and coaching.

“JoJo is going to be so good. And Ja’Vier is going to take another. . . All our younger guys are going to take another step up. And we found some things (against Texas).” — Houston coach Kelvin Sampson on JoJo Tugler

University of Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson coaches the Cougars over the Rice Owls 75-29
University of Houston point guard Jamal Shead is one of the best leaders in college sports. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

JoJo Tugler wasn’t a college prospect when he showed up his first basketball practice at Cy Falls as a high school freshman. But his game grew under Rich Flores’ coaching as his body continued to grow. Flores remembers one key three month stretch during Tugler’s junior season, culminating with Tugler’s performance in a Nike EYBL national event, when the kid with the extension set arms (Flores laughs recalling a trainer telling him he needed two tape measures to determine Tugler’s wingspan) went from someone who intrigued Houston’s coaches to a player they felt they absolutely had to land.

By having been regulars at Cy Falls gym for months, Kellen and Kelvin Sampson had already laid the foundation to make that happen.

“I don’t know if many people had seen Joseph at that time,” Flores says. “But that’s when they knew, ‘Hey, we aren’t messing around.’ They knew. They had seen him develop in three months increments. So I think that’s the beauty of their relationship. Because of that. Because of their program.

“Just the way that Joseph is — a tough kid with such a great heart and a good family, I knew it was going to be a great fit.”

JoJo Tugler Embraces Hard Coaching

Flores used to coach Tugler hard and demand more from a talent who could have coasted just on his size and athletic ability in high school. If you’re wondering how this 18-year-old has already become an impact player for a Top 5 team, you can start there. “You can tell JoJo’s been coached well,” Kelvin Sampson says. “Because he knows how to respond to coaching.”

Now Flores is seeing the results of Sampson’s own hard coaching of Tugler. Cy Falls ‘coach used to kid Tugler about how much better he’d be if he could only shoot as well as his older twin sisters Alexar and Elexar, basketball standouts of their own who both played in college. But Flores is certain Tugler will be a good college 3-point shooter by the time he’s done at Houston. This is how things work in Kelvin Sampson’s elite developmental program.

In fact, Flores will tell you he already sees the difference in JoJo Tugler’s game.

“As the year’s gone on, just in this short time, I’ve seen him catch it clean on those shallow rolls and really has some nice touch at the front of the rim,” Flores says. “And of course add that to some catch and shoot. Obviously, he hasn’t taken any threes yet. But I know that they’re developing him to. And when they feel comfortable and confident, he’ll have that same confidence in himself when that opportunity comes.”

“It meant everything for everybody. Winning. We trying to keep winning. I don’t know how to explain it. Winning. Nobody like losing. But I know Mal wanted it big. Wanted it big time.” — JoJo Tugler on beating Texas

University of Houston freshman JoJo Tugler is just beginning to realize his potential. With much more to come. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston freshman JoJo Tugler is just beginning to realize his potential. With much more to come. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

The fearless 18-year-old is ready when Houston needs him most amid the intensity and chaos of Texas’ fancy arena. With UT fraternity bros screaming their hearts out, anticipating a court storming. Tugler will get the offensive rebounds that matter most, step in when his buddy Francis can’t. This is JoJo Tugler, the teammate.

“Joseph if you look over at him — whenever we were up, let’s say we were fortunate to be up by 20, or something like that — he was just a tremendous teammate,” Flores says. “He wanted other guys to get to play and have success. Like if UH has their guy who comes in and everybody gets excited to see him score and this and that, Joseph has always just been a great teammate.

“That’s also what I’m super proud of.”

JoJo Tugler just had his Grow-Up Moment in college basketball. And he’s not done growing yet. Not even close.

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