Culture / Sporting Life

The Practice Wars That Made Houston College Basketball’s Most Unlikely Super Team

A Crazy Deep Bench, Near Fist Fights and a Coach Who Treats Every Day Like a Battle Forge a 29-2 Final Four Darkhorse

BY // 03.13.19

Every practice is the basketball equivalent of a steel cage match, floor burns, trash talk and near fisticuffs expected.

“Oh, trust me,” University of Houston guard Corey Davis Jr. laughs. “We almost get in fist fights at some points. It gets that deep. Every day is just a battle. I think that’s why we’re so good.

“We push ourselves like no one else can push us.”

It is always the red team (the starters) versus the white team (the reserves), day after day, practice after practice, battle after battle. This is how Kelvin Sampson, college basketball’s ultimate practice professor, has always done things. He builds two distinct units and makes them challenge each other to create a much stronger team.

This 29-2 University of Houston team, fresh off a 85-69 overpowering of Cincinnati that makes the Cougars the undisputed American Athletic Conference regular season champion, just might be the finest example of Sampson’s beliefs yet. UH does not have anything close to a Zion Williamson or Ja Morant level talent on its roster.

There is no NBA superstar in wait powering the No. 11 team in America.

Sure, Davis can be special as the should be AAC Player of the Year shows in dropping 31 points in Cincinnati. But these Cougars largely overwhelm as a whole.

It may not be as ESPN highlight friendly as Morant hitting a twisting, hanging game winner in the lane. But it its even more frightening for the teams that will have to try to stop Houston in the NCAA Tournament (not to mention that already frustrated AAC schools tasked with that mission in this weekend’s conference tournament in Memphis).

“Their guys off the bench are so different than the guys they’re replacing,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin says. “It’s almost like a whole different team.”

A very good one. UH’s bench puts up 32 points in Cincinnati, outscores the Bearcats second unit by 15 points in a game the Cougars win by 16.

Any questions?

The Son — and The Standard

This bench dominance is built in Kelvin Sampson’s lab — otherwise known as the practice court. Sampson’s long empowered his reserves to push the starters. He demands it.

Sampson’s own son, Kellen Sampson, was a walk-on guard on some of his best Oklahoma teams. Kellen Sampson did not play much, but he worked tirelessly to punish the Sooners’ star guards in practice every day.

“I was a reserve,” Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “That’s something we take a lot of pride in. Guys associate themselves with either being on the red team or the white team. And no matter what it is — shooting drills, free throws, rebounding — it’s very much a competition between the red and white team.”

Kellen Sampson is now an up-and-coming assistant coach for UH — and his dad’s tasked him the job of coaching the white team (the reserves) in practice every day for good reason. The younger Sampson knows what the bench players go through. And he knows how to bring it.

“I always assign my most enthusiastic, energy assistant with my white team,” Sampson says. “At Oklahoma, it was Bennie Seltzer, who was my starting point guard at Washington State. I always love hiring former players.

“And here, it’s Kellen. Kellen’s done a great job coaching the white team. He just has a tremendous knack for motivating those guys. It frustrates the red team. Because he’s so enthusiastic. So loud. And he gets those guys going. And that’s when our practices go to another level.”

Corey Davis doesn’t go up against many players in the actual games who are as annoying to play as DeJon Jarreau, Houston’s all arms and legs pogo stick of a 6-foot-5 sophomore guard, and Nate Hinton, the Cougars’ 6-foot-6 jumping jack of a freshman, are in practice.

It’s no surprise that Jarreau and Hinton seem to be getting better as the season goes on. They’re being forged into ruthless competitors by Kelvin Sampson’s practice wars.

“That’s probably our biggest success story right there,” Davis says. “They push us, the starters, every day. Landon (Goesling), DeJon, Nate… everybody that’s on the white team. They came at us with full force every day.

“And it does nothing but make us better.”

University of Houston Kelvin Sampson DeJon Jarreau
University of Houston forward Brison Gresham seems to pop off the bench blocking shots. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Welcome to Houston’s practice wars. Score is kept in everything — from the five on five battles between the Cougars’ starters and reserves to The Daily Dozen, a favorite Kelvin Sampson drill of alternating left and right handed layups, six each.

“Whoever makes the most layups wins,” Sampson says. “Red team and white team.”

UH’s Bench Wins

It’s always red team vs. white team, starters vs. reserves, pride vs. pride. You can sure that reserve big man Brison Gresham relishes sending a Corey Davis shot into the third row in practice as enthusiastically as he relishes rejecting an opposing point guard’s shot in the actual games. Sometimes even more so.

Some days UH’s red team vs white team can feel like a real game.

“On this team, I don’t know who would win,” Sampson says. “If our red and white team played at the Fertitta Center in an actual game? I don’t know who would win. And the fact I don’t know who would win says it all.”

These Cougars almost cannot help but be one of the most competitive teams in all of college basketball. They’re raised on this stuff —forged to scrap for everything by fighting each other for everything in practice after practice after practice.

“You see it on the court when we play,” Hinton says. “It’s the same intensity you see on the court in the games every single day. It’s like that in practice. It’s very high level. We have a team with a lot of depth. Everybody knows how to play. Everybody’s going to war.

“And everybody’s trying to get better. That’s what you see out there at practice.”

Sampson’s obsession with building a second team that can challenge — and even annoy his starters at the level Captain Marvel grates on sexist comic book movie fans — goes back to his days coaching at Washington State in the 1980s.

“I place tremendous value on practice,” Houston’s coach says. “You have to be able to get better. And that’s why depth is so important.”

Just practice does not create a super team much bigger than its individual parts. But practicing against someone just as talented as you who’d do anything to beat you just might.

This University of Houston team is trying to take a different path through March. It’s depth over stars, practice over press clippings, two units coming together to fight as one.

Well, at least until the next practice. When they’ll start battling each other all over again.

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