Culture / Sporting Life

Another Coach Calls UH the National Title Favorite and Overall No. 1 Seed — Kelvin Sampson Demanded Ball Movement and It’s Opening Eyes

How One Meeting After the Alabama Loss Changed Everything

BY // 12.22.22

McNeese State coach John Aiken has brought his team to Baylor, Tennessee and Iowa State this season. The Cowboys have been blown out by a number of elite teams. But what Aiken experienced playing No. 3 Houston is a little different — struggling to score five points in the first 13 minutes and 38 seconds of the second half different.

Aiken will tell you that’s why Houston is a different beast than even other top teams.

“They showed to me why Houston is the odds on favorite in Vegas to win the national championship,” Aiken says.

UH coach Kelvin Sampson doesn’t care about those kind of things. He’d likely dismiss any favorite talk as beyond silly. Arguably for good reason. The one-loss-and-done nature of March Madness can chew up the most monster of favorites. A Duke team with Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett that turned into one of college basketball’s all-time biggest regular season shows lost without making the Final Four in 2019. Poll rankings and gambling odds guarantee nothing.

But good ball movement just might. That is type of thing Sampson concentrates on. Houston’s coach saw plenty of that in his team’s 83-44 dismantling of McNeese in which Aiken’s team scored almost half of its total points (20) in the final 6:22 of a long decided game, largely after Sampson switched to a zone defense. With selfless point guard Jamal Shead racking up nine assists, secondary playmaker Tramon Mark contributing five — including a one touch behind-the-back pass to big man Ja’Vier Francis for a dunk — and underrated passing forward Jarace Walker adding three, Sampson’s team kept the ball whipping around.

This 23 assist night just continues the ball movement trend that really picked up after this now 12-1 team’s lone loss to Alabama. That’s no coincidence. After Kelvin Sampson’s team only got seven assists on 25 made baskets against the Crimson Tide, often breaking down into futile one-on-one attacks, UH’s coach quickly laid down a mandate.

“We had a little come to Jesus meeting about how we’re going to play,” Sampson says when I ask him about the ball movement. “Certain things just aren’t negotiable. Ball’s got to move. Move it. And if you catch somebody in a closeout and you think you can drive it, then drive it, draw somebody and then move it again.

“Quick decisive ball movement.”

Good ball movement helps make sure the kind of upsets that are almost the norm in college basketball this time of year don’t happen to Kelvin Sampson’s program. On the same night that UH absolutely throttled 3-9 McNeese, No. 16 Iowa lost to a 3-9 Eastern Illinois team at home as a 31.5 point favorite.

And not just lost. Lost by nine points.

“Look around the country and see all the teams getting beat,” Sampson says. “They’re getting beating by teams just like McNeese State.”

Good ball movement also makes a shooter like emerging freshman guard Emanuel Sharp even more dangerous. Sharp, who is becoming the second player off the bench for Sampson in many situations, buries six triples against McNeese in only 19 minutes. And he might have hit more if painful cramps in his leg hadn’t sent him to the bench and eventually the locker room for a few minutes in the second half.

“I was just cramping,” Sharp tells PaperCity. “I was dehydrated. It kind of held me out a little bit. I would have liked to stay in a little longer. . . That’s mostly just on me. Throughout the day, preparing for the game, I’ve just got to drink more fluids.”

Sharp got fluids and salt in the locker room to recover as quickly as he could. For a player who saw a horrific leg injury end his senior season of high school before it ever started, dealing with simple muscle cramping is something of a relief. The 6-foot-4 guard with the smooth jumper overcame a lot to become part of Sampson’s regular rotation.

“This kid didn’t play basketball for 18 months,” Sampson says of Sharp. “He broke his leg. He broke his tibia, a compound fracture of his ankle. Didn’t do anything.”

Now Sharp is doing plenty, adding another pure shooter to go with preseason All-American guard Marcus Sasser (17 points on 6 for 12 shooting) in Houston’s regular rotation. He’s getting more and more comfortable by the game too.

“Just being here and getting up hundreds of shots every day, it’s just natural to feel confident,” Sharp tells PaperCity. “So when it does get to game time, I know I can do it.”

“We had a little come to Jesus meeting about how we’re going to play. Certain things just aren’t negotiable. Ball’s got to move. Move it.” — UH coach Kelvin Sampson

Games like this provide a chance for Sampson to develop his still young roster. In the blowout of McNeese, three of UH’s top four scorers are first or second year players with Ja’Vier Francis torturing another overmatched foe to the tune of 23 points and 13 rebounds in 25 high-energy minutes, Sharp hitting more than half of his threes and true freshman Terrance Arceneaux putting up a seven point, four rebound, two assist line in 17 minutes.

It helps that super freshman Jarace Walker (only four shots taken) and veteran forward J’Wan Roberts seem more than happy to let their teammates have some shine. Walker and Roberts are both willing and gifted passers, which helps keep that basketball moving like a spinning slot in Las Vegas.

“When you have bigs who can pass, the point guard and shooting guard don’t have to work as hard,” Roberts says. “Marcus (Sasser), if he gets the ball and gets it to us, he knows he can get it back. That’s a lot easier than going one-on-one to try and force a bad shot.

“Having bigs who can pass helps out our offense.”

This may be one of the more naturally gifted passing teams that Kelvin Sampson has ever had. That doesn’t mean they don’t need a reminder to keep the ball moving, though. Or a wakeup call.

The #3 ranked University of Houston Cougars beat the McNeese State Cowboys 83-44 , at the Fertitta Center
UH guard Tramon Mark gives the Cougars another point guard worthy passer. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

That is what that meeting in the aftermath of the Alabama loss seems to have done. Reminded Shead, Sasser, Walker, Roberts, Mark and Co. of the power of passing. Of creating a better shot with a little teamwork.

” Our kids want to win,” Sampson says. “And sometimes as a coach you’ve got to plug the GPS in for them. And just follow the directions.”

“That’s why our NET’s so high every year. Because we know how to schedule.” — UH coach Kelvin Sampson

Kelvin Sampson, Scheduling and the Path to a No. 1 NCAA Tournament Seed

McNeese’s coach feels like UH is following a path to being the No. 1 overall seed in this March’s NCAA Tournament, which happens to end in Houston in the Final Four at NRG Stadium. That is what the Cougars look like to John Aiken.

“I want to expose our guys to what it looks like to play the No. 1 overall seed in the country,” Aiken says.

UH is currently No. 2 in the all-important NET ratings, behind only undefeated UConn and one spot ahead of undefeated Purdue. Kelvin Sampson does care about those rankings that the NCAA Tournament committee uses to help seed teams and builds Houston’s non-conference schedule around giving the Cougars every chance to be up near the top.

While an average college basketball fan will look at UH’s 12-1 non-conference run as having had only four truly tough games (at Oregon, at Virginia, against Saint Mary’s in Fort Worth and Alabama at home), Sampson dismisses that notion.

“I do the scheduling,” Sampson says. “. . . So you’re at Oregon. You’re at Virginia, You have Alabama at home. You’ve got Saint Mary’s. You got Kent State. Northern Colorado’s picked to win their league. They beat Colorado State by the way. Norfolk State. We know our schedule.

“No one else knows the schedule but me. You can’t look and say, ‘Oh, that team’s good.’ You don’t know them. We know ’em. We research these teams. That’s why our NET’s so high every year. Because we know how to schedule. But this schedule for this team was the right schedule.”

Did it help create a future national champion? McNeese coach sees that when he looks at Houston. Kelvin Sampson knows better than to forecast. He just want his guys to keep moving that basketball, to keep playing to get better, to keep following those directions.