Culture / Sporting Life

Sampson’s Army — How Building a Program of Unparalleled Depth Makes Houston a Serious National Championship Trophy Hunter

Every Coog Counts — Drubbing of SMU Shows UH's Roster Strength

BY // 02.01.21

College basketball’s national championship trophy is in the building, a shining symbol of what is no longer a farfetched fantasy for Kelvin Sampson’s University of Houston basketball program. It glitters on the concourse level of the Fertitta Center, far above the court and the COVID-19 gameday semi bubble the UH players largely stay in.

But just because Houston’s players cannot see the hardware does mean they’re not playing to give themselves the best chance at grabbing it. This UH team plays like it is trophy hunting. Its urgency rarely wavers, no matter the opponent, the situation or the current stakes.

After all, it’s about the bigger prey — and larger opportunities — to come in March. About certain shiny objects.

“It’s just motivation,” Houston guard Marcus Sasser says of the trophy that serves as March Madness’ ultimate prize, which is making a national tour with the Fertitta Center its first stop. “We want to get that one day. We want to win the national championship also one day. It’s just motivation.”

The fifth ranked Cougars are playing like one of the most motivated teams in America, ruthlessly and relentlessly overwhelming opponents who all give their A Game with visions of toppling a giant. SMU, which comes into this Sunday with the second best NET rating in the American Athletic Conference, is the latest to enter with grand upset dreams.

Little more than two hours later, the Mustangs are staggering out of the Fertitta Center, muttering to themselves, smarting from a 70-48 beating. This now 15-1 UH team is not just winning at a staggering rate. It’s strangling the hope out of opponents desperate to supercharge their own March resumes with a signature win.

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Such is life trying to topple one of college basketball’s deepest powers. On this Houston team, almost anyone can be a star for at least a game or two. Trying to defend this UH team is like playing the world’s most frustrating game of Whac-A-Mole. On an afternoon when Quentin Grimes, the conference’s leading scorer, only takes eight shots and scores six points, the Cougars still put up 42 points in a dominant second half. The game after Cameron Tyson hits nine 3-pointers in a 31-point explosion, he rightfully slides back behind the returning Grimes, deep into the rotation, and only plays six minutes.

Sasser scores 19 points despite missing his first five shots, but five other Houston players put up between six and 10 points. No wonder why SMU seems confused about what to do. The Mustangs are not playing against a few stars. They’re fighting Sampson’s Army.

“I could probably say that,” UH senior guard DeJon Jarreau says when I ask if this is the deepest team he’s ever played on in his basketball life. “Other than the 2018-2019 team, the Sweet 16 team, I’d probably say this is the deepest one. Because on that team we had Corey (Davis Jr.), Armoni (Brooks), Galen (Robinson Jr.), Fabian (White Jr.) and Breaon (Brady).  Then, you had me coming off the bench. We had Ced (Alley Jr.). coming the bench. We had (current NBA player) Nate Hinton coming off the bench.

“So we had a lot of good pieces with that team. But I kind of just feel like with this team — not that that team didn’t embrace their role but everybody just embraces their role. And they just try to do it to a T. Even on defense, we pride in helping each other and help rebound.”

UH’s Purposeful Depth

It is no coincidence that Houston has had two of the deepest teams in college basketball in the last three seasons. A number of blue blood programs — including Duke and Kentucky — have rosters almost completely filled with top rated recruits. But those schools are not building the type of difference-making rotation depth that Kelvin Sampson’s player development program almost routinely is.

Every player counts at Houston. No matter how highly or lowly they’re rated by the recruiting services. If a player is on Sampson’s roster, he and his assistant coaches will do everything they can to help develop his game. Reggie Chaney did not come out of Arkansas as one of the flashier names in the transfer portal, but he’s now a viable weapon inside.

“It’s just motivation,” Houston guard Marcus Sasser says of the trophy that serves as March Madness’ ultimate prize. “We want to get that one day.”

While many prominent coaches rely on whichever five star recruits overpower the others, Sampson made it a point to work Chaney into some games early in the season. And there the 6-foot-8 forward is against SMU on the last day of January, pulling off duck under moves, putting up 10 points and five rebounds in 20 meaningful minutes.

“Our team this year doesn’t depend on one guy per se,” Sampson says. “. . . Our depth is a big part of who were are. Marcus has had nights where he didn’t shoot it well and somebody else stepped up. Quentin had nights, the same thing. But we’re going to have nights where they all shoot it well. Like the first half against Tulsa.

“But our constant is our defense, our rebounding and the way we take care of the ball. As long as we do those three things — the Holy Trinity — we’re always in the game.”

While Houston’s backcourt has always been packed, before and after the transfer of Caleb Mills, plenty of questions surrounded its front court coming into the season. Justin Gorham has answered all those questions, turning himself into college basketball’s version of a modern Dennis Rodman.

Gorham grabs 17 more rebounds against SMU in 30 minutes of court time, making another opponent more self righteously annoyed than a Bachelor contestant denied a rose.

“I see teams hussing at each other, you know hollering at each other,” Jarreau says of the impact of Gorham’s relentless pursuit of the basketball. “When he do get a rebound, he get two in a row. He just wears guys down. His energy is great.”

“Rebounding is heart, and nobody’s heart is bigger than Justin’s,” Sampson says.

Justin Gorham UH
UH forward Justin Gorham has turned himself into a rebounding force. (Photo by UH Athletics)

Gorham found himself lost in UH’s depth last season, searching for minutes behind Fabian White Jr., Nate Hinton and Cedrick Alley Jr. in the forward rotation. But he kept working on his game with Kellen Sampson, Houston’s head coach of the future. Gorham developed himself into an impact player with plenty of help from a coaching staff that never pushed him to the side for the next big name.

Now, he’s arguably the most valuable player on a true Final Four contender. Yes, one-and-done NBA phenoms in wait can drive teams deep into March. Especially in non COVID seasons. There is no denying the impacts instant household names like Carmelo Anthony, Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson can have in a single college season.

But maybe depth, maybe a roster full of guys who keep getting reminded that they can all make an impact in their own way, is another way to stalk trophies. Even the most monumental one of all.

“That’s great,” says Jarreau, whose plus 27 paces the Cougars against their would be rivals from Dallas. “For people to even mention us in the same sentence as Final Four, national championship, national champion — we don’t really think about it.”

They should — if they really don’t. You do not rank fourth in the entire nation in NET — a rating system designed to eliminate the inherent biases of college basketball brought by elite program reputations and past season performances — with hidden mirrors or parlor tricks. Only Baylor and Gonzaga, which have looked like super teams all season, and Big Ten pace setter Michigan rank ahead of UH in NET.

This University of Houston team is beyond legit, the best sports story in the entire city no matter how few columnists show up at their games.

One thing is certain. This Kelvin Sampson Houston team is going to make for one fascinating March case study.

On the day that the national championship trophy is in the Coogs’ house, the day the school started selling a new line of striking Phi Slama Jama merchandise that almost screams swagger, Sampson’s Army delivers another resounding drubbing. Another lesson from one of the deepest teams in the sport.

This did not happen by accident. This depth is purposeful, built with painstaking planning, careful player analysis and endless sweat equity. Now, the Cougars get to see just how far they can fly. As a group. A big one.

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