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Culture / Sporting Life

21-1 and Still a Growth Stock — Special UH Team Can Still Get So Much Better Thanks to DeJon Jarreau

Two Devastating Deaths Rocked This Houston Player's World, But He Never Stopped Reaching For More

BY // 02.01.19

DeJon Jarreau is flying again, all long arms and legs twisting and contorting, like the most flexible pencil in the world. It’s an arresting sight, made more so by the fact it comes in what’s largely a defensive mud fest of a basketball game.

Temple has no one on the floor who looks like Jarreau, no one who can quite do what he can do. In truth, the University of Houston doesn’t have anyone else like him either.

This sophomore transfer seems to be taking off, after enduring a string of devastating real-life tragedies — and he gives Houston a real chance to reach even greater heights. UH is now 21-1 after a 73-66 brushback of the only team that’s managed to beat them this season.

And, believe it or not, in some ways these Cougars only seem to be getting started.

The only college basketball team in the land with 21 wins on February 1, an American Athletic Conference school that’s already ranked No. 13 in America, is somehow still a growth stock. Really.

DeJon Jarreau helps give this University of Houston team that can’t stop winning the chance for so much more. On a night when coach Kelvin Sampson rips off his red tie and flings it in a bit of second half intensity, a night when billionaire believer Tilman Fertitta whispers sweet (winning) somethings into UH president Renu Khator‘s ear in a one giddy moment, a night that Corey Davis Jr. and Galen Robinson Jr. continue to stake their legitimate claim as the best defensive backcourt in the nation, it’s Jarreau who goes higher.

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Jumping Jack Jarreau — time to hit the gas.

“He’s just scratching the surface,” Sampson says of the 6-foot-5, just-turned-21 array of never-ending limbs.

That gives this UH team plenty of reason to believe it can be better in March than it is already right now. When Jarreau first arrived on Houston’s campus, sitting out last season under transfer rules, he made an immediate impression.

“Coach Sampson called him a firecracker when he first came in,” Davis says, grinning. “He was just all over the place.”

On this Thursday night against Temple, Jarreau is all over the boxscore, putting up 14 points and 12 rebounds, driving into the lane to give the Cougars a different dimension, recovering to swat away a shot after initially getting beat on defense.

Jarreau is an ultra thin, extra long bolt of energy that often seems to glide down the court. He looks almost like a flagpole come to life. His endless limbs sometimes almost seem to unfold like an accordion. This is a former four star recruit — and it shows in the athleticism and raw skills that jump out. You could argue that Jarreau is the most naturally talented player on the UH roster.

“He still gets a little crazy sometimes,” Sampson says. “He’s learning. He’s learning. Every day he gets a little bit better. We spend a lot of time with him on hitting singles. He’s Mark McGwire. He’s Sammy Sosa. He’s Barry Bonds.

“He’s learning to make the simple play.”

The Heartache and The Comeback

What a difference a month and a half makes. Jarreau didn’t break back into Sampson’s rotation until a Dec. 16 game against Saint Louis.

Jarreau recorded seven straight DNP — Coach’s Decisions early in the season. Part of that came as punishment for violating team rules. He struggled with a nasty finger injury. Most devastatingly, he suffered through the death of his grandmother, who helped raise him, and his cousin, known as Young Greatness in the rap world.

Young Greatness — whose real name was Theodore Jones — was gunned down in a Waffle House parking lot in New Orleans on October 29. He was just 34 years old, shot in the back, and gone.

At one point, Jarreau could be excused for wondering if the first season he could actually play at UH was destined to turn into a bottomless pit of misery. For a stretch, he could only sit and think.

“It was very tough because I sat out the whole last year,” Jarreau says when I ask him about the run of DNPs, “and I was looking forward to the first couple of games and getting back out there with my teammates. And overcoming all the things I’ve been through… So to not be able to start the season off with my team, that was very hard.”

But there he is on the last day of January, in a second half rocking, $60 million showcase of a college basketball arena, helping his team soar. Jarreau — a once indifferent defender — even harasses Temple guard Quinton Rose into 8 for 22 shooting in a largely harmless 26 point night that’s almost as inefficient as a Kobe Bryant retirement game.

Practice may not make you perfect. But it sure makes you tougher in Kelvin Sampson’s program. DeJon Jarreau’s practiced to the point where he now has a little junkyard dog in his defensive game.

“You know the most important thing he’s done?” Sampson says. “He’s learned how to practice. Ninety percent of the kids I recruit have no concept, no idea how to practice. Not the way we practice. Not the way our culture demands.

“And once he’s learned to do that, his game’s just taken off.”

University of Houston Cougars Kelvin Sampson
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson threw down his tie in the second half. Intensity is part of his coaching. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)

Jarreau is still being molded as the lure of March beckons — and Sampson tries to keep it at bay. He’s been working on his jump shot with UH assistant coach Quannas White, which will make those drives to the rim even harder to stop.

This is anything but a basketball player in full yet — and that gives a 21-1 Houston team a chance at another level too. Jumping Jack Jarreau even might actually develop some brakes.

“He tried one crazy pass tonight that just made me want to go cross eyed,” Sampson says.

Sitting to his coach’s left, Jarreau breaks into his biggest grin of the night on hearing this. Later, when Davis talks about Jarreau learning on his own and the two learning from each other, Sampson drops a deadpan “Please” that any parent would appreciate and treasure.

NCAA Tournament Mad Fever

Still, beating Temple convincingly, on a night when the Cougars hit only 4 of their 18 3s and brick 13 free throws, leaves the coach in an expansive and reflective mood. Sampson talks about everything from why Tom Brady is important to his team (more on this another day) to home run sluggers (even kiddingly chiding assistant athletics director for communications Jeff Conrad for an outdated Babe Ruth reference).

These are moments of the season — and Sampson wants his guys to grab onto them like the fleeting fireflies that they are. Fertitta (and almost everyone else) may be only dreaming of March, envisioning how a Sweet 16 run would grip the entire city of Houston. But Sampson wants his players to realize that January 31 and a lot of other dates are sweet too.

“Everyone wants to talk about the (NCAA) Tournament,” the coach says. “That’s the destination. Man, don’t talk about the destination. Enjoy this journey. Enjoy your teammates, these brothers you are with and the memories you’re making.

“Ten, 15 years from now they may have a reunion and come back and talk about all this stuff. That other stuff doesn’t really matter. We’ll go to the tournament when the time comes. We’ll win or we’ll lose and we’ll go on down the road.

“But this thing we’re going through right now is real special for these kids. And I really want them to enjoy.”

Enjoy DeJon Jarreau’s long soars. Enjoy Davis and Robinson’s stifling lockdowns. Enjoy a special twist.

After all, how many 21-1 teams do you know that are getting better?

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