Culture / Sporting Life

UH Basketball Fans, Fertitta Center Prove to be Big 12 Ready — Obsessing Over Alabama Loss Misses Bigger Picture of Regular Top 10 Matchups to Come

More Monster Games on Campus Will Mean a Few More Losses, But the March Benefits Are Priceless

BY // 12.11.22

Every seat in the building is filled — and then some. There is a line of students outside hoping they’ll be somehow squeezed in. More than an hour before tipoff, the Fertitta Center is already buzzing, full of energy and people. Everyone talks about how rare this — and indeed, it’s the first time the University of Houston has ever hosted a game between two Top 10 basketball teams on its campus.

But it won’t be that rare soon.

With Kelvin Sampson’s Top 10 program joining arguably the best basketball conference in the country in the Big 12 next season, this No. 1 Houston vs. No. 8 Alabama showdown is really a precursor to all the big ranked games to come. Can you imagine what it will be like when Chris Beard brings Texas into the Fertitta Center? (At least, before the Longhorns complete their move to the SEC). And picture those regular Baylor-UH and Kansas-UH matchups that are coming, year after year after year.

Yes, Houston will be semi regularly hosting Top 10 basketball matchups on its campus starting next season. The Big 12 has three teams ranked in the Top 12 in the last edition of the college basketball poll (No. 2 Texas, No. 6 Kansas and No. 12 Baylor). Four if you count soon-to-be Big 12 Houston itself.

Many more monster games and electric gameday atmospheres like this one are coming. This 71-65 loss to Alabama — even as much of a buzzkill as most UH fans regard it as — is instructive. Of all the big games on the way. And how yes, that will mean a few more regular losses. When you’re regularly playing Top 10 games, you’re going to lose some of them. But these games — including this second half defensive unraveling to Alabama — will make UH better in March.

The fact that the last seven national champions and 30 of the last 31 national champions have all played in one of KenPom’s five highest-rated conferences is no accident. The lone exception is that 2014 Cinderella UConn team that won it all coming out of the American Athletic Conference, toppling a powerhouse Kentucky team in the championship game.

Houston needs to be in games like this regularly if it wants to win a national championship. And soon, it will be. Soon, Top 10 showdowns will be happening several times in many seasons. They’ll still be mighty special, but nothing Haley’s Comet like.

“This is what we’ve been hoping to build to forever,” University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman tells PaperCity. “I wasn’t here when we hired Kelvin (Sampson), but this is the vision that we all had when coach came here. I’ve been out walking around outside, inside. The tailgate.

“We’ve got a line of students that exceed our capacity.”

This is what the next level of big time looks like. So yes, there is plenty for nervous fans to obsess over from Alabama 71, Houston 65. The Cougars’ offense and defense fall apart after Tramon Mark fouls out with 8:09 remaining. UH is outscored 20 to 8 over those final eight minutes and this team clearly needs another guard Kelvin Sampson can trust besides Mark, Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead. Houston also needs highly-rated freshmen Jarace Walker and Terrance Arceneaux to play tougher, with more consistent rebounding from both. But those are concerns that Kelvin Sampson, one of the very best in-season adjustments and teaching coaches in America, has time to work on.

Just obsessing over the faults of a now 9-1 UH team that will fall out of the No. 1 spot in the polls (but still deserves to be ranked right around No. 6 in the country) misses the larger picture. The fact that this scene — a Top 10 matchup on UH’s campus — is soon going to become part of the regular fabric of Kelvin Sampson’s program.

And UH basketball fans and the Fertitta Center both prove to be more than worthy of the moment in this first run. In fact, the arena is as supercharged as almost any venue you’ll find in all of college basketball on this Saturday. When Jamal Shead, Houston’s 6-foot-1 point guard, throws down a viscous cradle dunk, posterizing 6-foot-8 Alabama forward Noah Gurley in the process, Fertitta Center absolutely explodes.

The #1 ranked University of Houston Cougars were beaten by the #4 ranked Alabama CrimsonTide at the Fertitta Center
UH point guard Jamal Shead unleashed a viscous one-handed cradle slam in the Alabama loss. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

This is big time college basketball in a big time setting. Having legends like Hakeem Olajuwon, former NFL all-world receiver Andre Johnson and young Rockets hopes Jalen Green and KJ Martin in the building (along with billionaire UH believer Tilman Fertitta, school president Renu Khator and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner) is nice. But it’s the response of the regular fans that wow the Houston basketball staff.

“It’s exciting to see our fans rally around us,” UH assistant coach Quannas White tells PaperCity. “They showed out. They showed up and they showed out. I know our guys really appreciate it. It’s going to help us going forward.”

There are a number of high-level basketball recruits in that record crowd of 7,718. But this game, this beyond big time atmosphere, is a great selling tool for all University of Houston sports. Football coach Dana Holgorsen brings Donovan Smith, the former Texas Tech quarterback who is a prized transfer portal target for his program, to Alabama-Houston.

How could you not? It’s the biggest thing going in the nation’s fourth largest city on this December Saturday. And it’s happening right on UH’s campus.

“This pressure  that we’re feeling,” Pezman says. “This interest and involvement and engagement with the success of the basketball program. But holistically, this is what we want in all sports. And we’re experiencing it. Because frankly in football, we haven’t done this. In years.

“Probably since Louisville, right? Our basketball program is a great representative of what we want this to feel and be like every time people come here.”

Soon, Top 10 showdowns will be happening several times in many seasons. They’ll still be mighty special, but nothing Haley’s Comet like.

Top 10 UH and Alabama Truths

That means more Top 10 games, more elite atmospheres and sometimes a few more disappointments. UH leads this game by 15 points at one point, but to call it a collapse as some have suggested is almost completely missing the flow of a high-level game that sees some major swings throughout. In the end, UH ends up leading for 19 minutes and 27 seconds of game time while Alabama leads for 18 minutes and 33 seconds. It’s a close tight game decided after Tramon Mark, who plays one of the best two-way games of his college career and finishes with a team-high plus 10 rating in his 24 minutes, fouls out.

“Well, the game changed,” Sampson says when I ask about the effect of Mark fouling out.

“He was playing really well,” Quannas White says of Mark. “He gave us a boost in the first half and he continued to make a difference early in the second half. It’s just one of those games where we got a lead and I thought we got a little bit comfortable.”

Now, the UH players figure to have some very uncomfortable practices with Kelvin Sampson. Sampson  has little patience for mistakes involving anything but full effort. In one memorable sequence on this Top 10 showdown Saturday, he comes onto the court during a timeout and gets right in the face of Walker, the McDonald’s All-American who is the highest rated recruit of the coach’s entire UH run.

Kelvin Sampson pushes everybody hard. No exceptions.

“This pressure  that we’re feeling. This interest and involvement and engagement with the success of the basketball program. But holistically, this is what we want in all sports. And we’re experiencing it.” — UH athletic director Chris Pezman

“We just couldn’t guard,” Shead says after Nate Oates’ Alabama team puts up 44 points in the second half and earns him a Gatorade shower. “We didn’t stay in front of the ball for like four or five straight possessions. That’s how they got back in it.

“And we just weren’t tough enough to finish it out.”

The #1 ranked University of Houston Cougars were beaten by the #4 ranked Alabama CrimsonTide at the Fertitta Center
UH forward J’Wan Roberts will dive into those packed Fertitta Center stands to chase the basketball. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Kelvin Sampson can toughen a talented team up. It’s part of what he does. Playing more games like this only potentially speeds up that process. This Houston team has already shown it’s capable of winning in an ultra tough road environment like Oregon and pulling out a close game against a good battle-tested Saint Mary’s team in Fort Worth. But doing it a home in a Top 10 showdown that seems to be the focus of the college basketball world and includes a buildup where everyone on campus seems to be talking to you about it, is a little different animal.

“I think it’s just a learning experience,” Shead says after proving to be up for the moment himself with a 19 point, seven rebound game. “This is our first real test with a Top 10 matchup this year. We can only get better. And those young guys, this is a really good game for them to really see the atmosphere that we’re going to be playing in a lot this year.”

And the years to come. Top 10 home games are about to become a lot less rare around here.

Buckle up — and get ready for all the stressful fun. This ride is only really starting to get going.

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