Culture / Sporting Life

Hakeem Olajuwon Can’t Save UH From Tacko Mania — College Basketball’s Most Unique Player Changes the Equation for Houston

This ESPN GameDay Loss Will Hurt Kelvin Sampson's Team in NCAA Tournament Seeding More Than it Should

BY // 03.03.19

University of Houston students start lining up at 4 am to get into the taping of ESPN’s College Gameday, like this is suddenly some mini version of Duke. Hakeem Olajuwon and Elvin Hayes both show, bringing real Phi Slama Jama power to the TV party. Case Keenum is in the front row with his wife Kimberly wearing red.

All-time Olympic great Carl Lewis comes out at halftime and leads a rendition of “Whose House? Coogs House!”

It’s the party of all UH parties.

All undone by one Tacko. OK, one supersized Tacko.

The biggest player in college basketball — University of Central Florida’s 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall — topples the team that seemed like it couldn’t lose. In truth, UCF’s 69-64 win over No. 8 Houston is somewhat predictable, especially this time of year in college basketball. It’s a loss against a good, but not great, team — the type of opponent that’s dangerous but one that won’t put a team like UH on edge.

Nevada — another Top 12 worthy non Power 5 team — has two of these losses in the last 10 days.

Anyone who tells you this College Gameday Saturday is Houston’s biggest basketball day of the season probably still needs a map to the Fertitta Center (not that there’s anything wrong with bandwagon jumpers). Fact is Kelvin Sampson’s team already won its biggest basketball home game, a 65-58 gut check of a closeout against No. 23 Cincinnati back on February 10.

This now 27-2 UH team has answered all its toughest challenges with the next coming in the return trip to Cincinnati on the last Sunday of the regular season. If this wake-up loss to a UCF team the Cougars already beat on the road prevents a knockout defeat later in March, it will be a more than worthwhile lesson.

There is probably something to be said for getting a loss out of the way now.

Which does not mean this setback will not make UH’s path in March more difficult. A No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the best team in the American Athletic Conference is suddenly a much, much more remote possibility.

Not because Sampson’s team could not deserve it. Because the selection committee will be looking for reasons to bump down an AAC team in favor of college basketball’s traditional blue bloods. UCF 69, Houston 64 gives them that ammunition.

No matter how much you may hate that. No matter how unfair that may be. That’s reality.

Pretending this loss means nothing completely ignores that truth.

The Tacko Challenge

Still, even if their March road is more challenging, the Cougars are unlikely to run into another 7-foot-6 giant in the NCAA Tournament. There is only one Tacko Fall — and if Sampson’s team doesn’t face the center who can pluck rebounds out of the air, right over the heads of mere mortal height frontline players, it probably wins this game too.

Despite shooting 12 of 24 from the free throw line and 6 for 18 on 3-pointers. But with Tacko changing everything, UH can’t overcome that.

“Tacko Fall takes away half of your playbook,” Sampson says.

The most intriguing player in college basketball not named Zion Williamson completely erases UH’s usually effective inside triumvirate of Breaon Brady, Fabian White Jr. and Chris Harris Jr. The trio’s held to a combined five points on 2 for 9 shooting.

Meanwhile, Tacko puts up 13 points and 10 rebounds, managing to stay on the floor for 31 impactful minutes. Afterwards when he sits on Houston’s postgame interview dais, his enormous feet stick out from under the curtained table, another reminder that this is not just another player.

And not just another ordinary human.

Tacko fall dunk
Tacko Fall does not have to jump very high to dunk.

Tacko came to America from Dakar, Senegal at age 16 — and one of the first people he ended up connecting with was Hakeem Olajuwon. Olajuwon showed his fellow African some of the drills that gave him the best footwork of any big man in NBA history. Seven years later, Tacko would come back to Houston and beat the school Hakeem went to with a few moves — and that unfathomable reach.

“The only thing I can remember from Tacko is he could grab the rim standing up,” Olajuwon laughs.

He still can — and he’s much more coordinated now.

“We have a system with Tacko,” UCF coach Johnny Dawkins says. “Both offensively and defensively, we have a unique player. We were able to play our way tonight.”

Corey Davis Jr. still almost steals the game for Houston. He races up court in transition and completes a coast-to-coast layup to tie the game at 58. And he follows that up with another drive into the paint, punctuated by a sweet wraparound pass to set up Brison Gresham for an easy score  that gives the Cougars a 60-58 lead with 1:57 left.

The guard long known for his jump shot is showing once again how far his game’s developed.

“One of the things that make us pretty good is that our best player doesn’t shot hunt,” UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity when I ask about Davis. “He just kind of lets it come to him.

“He’s kind of good on buying into our system that the open guy is the go-to guy. Coach has actually had to get on Corey about being a little bit more selfish.”

No Storybook ESPN Ending

Corey Davis Jr. should win AAC Player of the Year honors. With ESPN’s biggest college basketball names in a Fertitta Center that’s almost as loud as what Cardi B produced at the Rodeo the night before, it’d be fitting for UH’s hidden star to win the game.

But even the most storybook seasons do not have happy endings every Saturday.

UCF opens the second half with a 11-0 run. Houston goes five minutes and seven seconds without scoring a single point. Suddenly, the feel-good day of all feel-good days is in dire jeopardy.

Davis does his best to yank the game back. But after Aubrey Dawkins — the UCF coach’s son —  gives the Knights a 61-60 lead with the killer three, the Cougars next four offensive possessions are:

1). A wide-open missed wing 3-pointer from Galen Robinson Jr., who is battling neck stiffness.

2). A turnover.

3). A Davis airballed 3-pointer, a rarity akin to catching Squidward wearing pants.

4). A Nate Hinton clanged triple and a Hinton offensive rebound put back miss.

Half the Fertitta Center crowd is streaming for the exits with 10.4 seconds left. The moment — not the biggest moment, but a moment — is gone.

All the ESPN hype and big name spectators (Warren Moon and Don Chaney are also in the crowd) may actually help UCF more than UH in the end. Dawkins’ message to his team the night before the game is to not get caught up in the moment and let Houston be.

“Not at all,” Davis says when asked if all the noise around the day impacted the Cougars. “We were really focused, so it wasn’t anything we manifested in ourselves. We just left it for what it was.”

There is no doubt that Corey Davis, senior guard, should be conference player of the year, isn’t letting College GameDay, throw him off his game. Whether it impacted Houston’s younger players — and Sampson’s molded a bunch of young players into one of the best bench units in America — is probably more of an open question.

This looks like a teaching opportunity for the coach who turns practice into a daily war even when UH is rolling.

Yes, one moment is gone — technically a March moment. But it’s not the biggest moment, it’s not even close to the biggest day. There are many more moments to come for this Houston team.

Even if the road’s now going to be more difficult. Every good story needs a twist. Some even involve a giant Tacko.

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