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Culture / Sporting Life

UH Basketball is Ready for its National Closeup — Billionaire Expectations, Bracket Buzz and the Steady Backbone of Kelvin Sampson

With Selfie Requests, TV Backslaps and a City Ready to Jump Onboard at the Door, America's Most Unselfish Team Builds On

BY // 01.30.19

It’s a good time to be a University of Houston basketball player. Being 20-1, and on the cusp of the national conversation, comes with some tangible perks.

“Every time we’re on campus, there’s always somebody that wants to stop and take pictures, ask about the season, tell us good luck in the tournament,” senior guard Corey Davis Jr. tells PaperCity. “That really means a lot to us.”

This is still a new reality for Houston’s players who aren’t the five star princes who have been feted and fawned over almost their entire hoops lives. These Cougars certainly haven’t been living the Zion Williamson life. (And still aren’t whenever coach Kelvin Sampson is nearby). Still, there is no longer any denying the excitement building over UH’s program. The Cougars are going to be the biggest story in Houston sports within a few weeks — even if a few outlets obsessed with the Houston Texans’ offseason are a little slow to catch on.

Even James Harden’s historic brilliance will take a backseat to Sampson’s selfless team of dominant scrapers by March. A certain billionaire is already picturing the possibilities of a city along for the ride.

“I think they could easily be a third or fourth seed and they could be very dangerous in the (NCAA) Tournament,” Tilman Fertitta says when I ask his thoughts his beloved UH. “Let’s just hope that’s what happens. You’ll see a very excited city if the University of Houston gets to the Sweet 16.”

Sampson — who may have the best poker face in the entire city — isn’t about to jump up and down, or even crack a smile, at such talk.

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“I don’t even think about a statement like that,” Sampson says. “He said the city would be excited? Not nearly as excited as we’d be.”

Fertitta can sell the program and tease the future. Sampson is just trying to build his team. Day by day by day.

“Other people’s thoughts and expectations have nothing to do with us,” Sampson says over the bounce of the basketballs his players staying after practice for a little extra shooting are using. “I’m glad they have a team they can have expectations about. I remember when nobody had expectations for us. So it’s nice that they have them.”

The brand new $60 million Fertitta Center is already sold out for Thursday night’s rematch with Temple, the only team that’s beaten the Cougars this season. As it should be. But there are spoils — and then there’s the constant reality. UH junior guard Armoni Brooks laughs when I ask if Sampson is any more relaxed now that the program’s having a consistent run of success.

“No,” Brooks quickly answers. “He’s been the same since I first got here. He’s always been tough love. Just a tough love coach.”

Sampson understands that the UH program in a city full of professional sports options requires more salesmanship than Oklahoma or Indiana basketball. This 63-year-old lifer 0f a coach only knows one way though — to make sure he builds a team that wins games. When that turns into 20-1 — and a snazzy No. 13 ranking in the national polls — and the attention starts pouring in, he’ll still keep doing the same thing.

“I am who I am,” Sampson says. “I coach the same. Wherever we’ve been, we’ve always played to win. It didn’t matter to me. I felt like Montana (Tech) wasn’t very good when I got there. Of course, I wasn’t either. I was terrible. The team was bad, but they had a bad coach too.

“The next year we won a conference championship. Then, at Washington State same thing. We weren’t very good. Then, by the time we left, we were as good in that league as most of them. Then Oklahoma. They were just OK when we got there. Then, we got real good.

“At Indiana, we were good. Not very good when we got here. Now we’re as good as anybody in the league.”

Building a True Team

There aren’t many coaches anywhere confident enough to call themselves terrible in their first job. Even if it was their first job. Sampson almost goes out of his way to emphasize it. As Sampson talks after practice, wearing a simple gray long sleeve sweatshirt and gray sweatpants — a look that fits his workman, no flash ethos — his understated confidence comes through. Sampson isn’t secure because he has 600 wins (603 now to be precise). Or because a Houston team that lost arguably its two best players from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad is 20-1.

Kelvin Sampson is secure because he knows how to mold his team.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “You coach your team. And coach is a relative term.  You build your team. You instill culture. You hold guys accountable. You get them to understand discipline. You get them to fight for each other. You build a team.”

Kelvin Sampson University of Houston
Kelvin Sampson has University of Houston basketball in the national conversation.

The billionaire (one who Sampson clearly appreciates) can bluster and build excitement in the city. The bracketologists can finally start talking about Houston on TV (occasionally). Classmates can stop his players on their way across campus and ask for selfies. It will all be all right. Because Kelvin Sampson is still going to be the same demanding presence at practice the next day.

“I always see it when it comes up on my timeline, on Twitter or something like that,” Davis says of the Top 15 national ranking and NCAA Tournament bracket seeding buzz. “I’ll check it out, look at it and just like give it a head nod or something.

“I don’t get into it too deep. I’m just coming in doing my job, working hard, playing ball.”

This University of Houston team that could be the first UH team to make the Sweet 16 since the days of Phi Slama Jama (and why stop there if you’re scheming?) is one of the most unselfish teams in America. To the point where Sampson has to sometimes remind guys like Brooks and even Davis to shoot more. They’re going to be a tough out in March in part because they’re so tough to pigeonhole.

The ball moves — and everyone dives on the floor and sells out on defense. This is the team that’s been built this season.

“It’s just wanting to see each other succeed,” Brooks tells PaperCity. “We all get happy for each other. If someone gets an American Athletic Conference award, we always congratulate them. And get extremely excited for them. Just seeing your best friends and teammates succeed is probably the best gratitude you can get.”

Kelvin Sampson is gone from the floor at this point, already back in his office tending to the next task, but his presence is still there. This is his team in every way — and he’s not about to stop building now.

Buzz cannot halt these bricks.

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