Wednesday night was a clinic on why the University of Houston might be the most dangerous team in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Cougars can bring you out of your seat with acrobatic dunks and dazzling no-look passes. If that’s your thing, you can love this team, too.
Only, that’s not why the No. 1–ranked Cougars have the look and feel of a national champion—that is, they win with a defense that allows fewer points than any other team in the nation at 55.9 points per game and holds opponents to 35.9 percent shooting, the second-lowest in the nation. That part of their game was on display earlier this week, when Houston won for the twenty-sixth time in 28 games with an 89–59 rout of Tulane. The Cougars hope this performance was a blueprint for many more in March Madness: sixteen steals, five blocked shots, and nineteen forced turnovers. UH dominated the rebounding 46–27 and harassed Tulane into 38 percent shooting from the field.
“We just ran into a buzzsaw,” Tulane coach Ron Hunter said. “They played like the best team in the country.”
On offense, Houston recorded 22 assists on 31 made baskets, a stat that seemed to please the head coach most of all. This is UH basketball under Kelvin Sampson.
Houston is 142–24 over the last five seasons. Only Gonzaga, with 146 victories, has won more. Houston had not won a single NCAA tournament game in the three decades before Sampson arrived in 2014.
Nowadays, the Cougars aren’t just in the tournament. In their last three appearances, they’ve reached the Sweet 16, Final Four, and Elite Eight, and this season’s team might be deeper and more talented than any of its predecessors. “People forget it really quick, but we lost four starters from last year that knew how to do this stuff,” Sampson said. “Young kids do not. It takes them a while to figure it out. We are not just out there playing hard. We have the systems, and guys have to do their jobs. Our chemistry in defense has to be really good, but how hard you play, toughness, play for each other, and other things that we hold our kids accountable for.”
Houston’s success has elevated the program’s visibility to such an extent that Sampson can now compete for the nation’s best recruits. Look no further than the Cougars’ star freshman, six-foot-eight forward Jarace Walker, a five-star recruit coming out of high school and projected top-ten pick in this year’s NBA draft. During one stretch of Wednesday’s game, Sampson had two true freshmen on the floor in Walker and forward Terrance Arceneaux, another top-one-hundred recruit who turned down Baylor and Texas A&M to play for the Coogs.
With that kind of blue-chip talent on the roster, the Cougars won’t be outmanned if they find themselves deep in the NCAA tournament, preparing for a do-or-die matchup against a blue-blooded program like Kansas.
Sampson, though, prefers to focus more on how his program develops players, not just how it recruits them. “You guys see them after they get here,” Sampson said. “J’Wan [Roberts] is a byproduct of our player development system. That’s why I surround myself with people that want to get better. If you’re trying to help us get better, we’ll let you in the circle. If not, we don’t have time for that.”
Sampson nodded toward junior guard Jamal Shead. “I remember Jamal,” he said. “I wanted to make Jamal run sprints as I was recruiting him, but I thought I better sign him first.” This hands-on, tough-love approach isn’t for everyone. Sampson’s success lies in combining a demand that the game be played his way with an ability to connect with his players on a personal level.
“What I appreciate about Coach is that you’ve got be a certain type of kid that will buy in to the level of coaching and will want to be challenged,” UH athletics director Chris Pezman said. “These kids can go other places and won’t get challenged like that. Our coaches do a great job of getting character kids that will accept this style of play and the style of coaching and the culture. I’m in awe of what they do.”
“He’s able to demand a level of effort from the kids,” Pezman continued. “He gets them to buy into the work ethic it’s going to take. He [pushes] those guys in practice, but the trust they have in him when they step away from the court and how they know he loves them, it creates a bond. That allows him to coach those kids that hard. You can’t have one without the other. I’ve been with some really good coaches, and I haven’t seen anything like it—that connection.”
Houston’s preparation is so detailed that guard Marcus Sasser said he sometimes feels as if “we kind of know what is going to happen before it happens.” And there’s hustling to what coaches call “the 50–50 balls.” That’s what forward J’Wan Roberts did midway through the first half against Tulane, when he tipped a pass on defense, got control of the ball, and soared down the floor to slam home a dunk.
Roberts had 26 points, seven rebounds, and three assists against Tulane. To Sampson, that stat line represents much of what he has built since the day in 2014 when he went to lunch with UH system board of regents chairman Tilman Fertitta and said, “You can win a national championship here.” Fertitta apparently hadn’t heard anyone say something so bold in a long time, given how Houston had drifted into irrelevance in the two decades since the Southwest Conference broke up in 1994 and the Big 12 declined to issue Houston an invitation. To their everlasting credit, Fertitta and other UH administrators listened to Sampson.
With Texas and Oklahoma leaving for the Southeastern Conference in 2024, Houston will enter the Big 12 Conference later this year and finally be back on equal footing with TCU, Texas Tech, and Baylor. Plenty of UH alums and fans could not have dreamed of this day.
“I don’t want to say this place was dead on arrival when Kelvin got here, but it was pretty damn close,” Pezman said. “There wasn’t any energy or momentum around the program. He had battles to get people to understand what a program needs to look like to operate at this level. I don’t know how he has done it.”
Sampson is not one to look back, only occasionally offering something like, “They had a team before I got here, but they didn’t have a program.”
Among the things the coach has done to build that program and transform Houston into a national hoops powerhouse was convincing Fertitta that UH couldn’t contend with second-rate facilities. That led to an $85-million spending spree on a renovated basketball arena and a new practice facility. The return on that investment? “We ran some numbers on the media exposure during the tournament run in 2022,” Pezman said, “and it was [worth] $15 million to $18 million.”
It’s harder to quantify the impact of the relationships Sampson builds with players, the coaching and training staffs, and UH officials, but the impact is clear. During his pregame hours on Wednesday, he telephoned Kyle Meyer, a member of Sampson’s second and third Cougars rosters.
“I just told him how much I appreciated what he did for this program during his time here,” Sampson said. “We won twenty-two games during Kyle’s first year, and at the time it was a big deal.” The coach does this with dozens of former players, just to remain a presence in their lives and to thank them for their contributions to UH.
Sampson ticked off the names of other players on that 22-win team, and recalled how they had laid the foundation for the program’s future success. “Just the consistency, [that’s] what I’m most proud of,” he said. “Year-in and year-out starting in 2015–16. First year, we didn’t have the transfer portal, and if we had that the first year, there’s no telling what we could have done. We got to recruit after that, and we’re pretty good at that.”
And even better at getting players to perform their best and sacrifice for one another on the court.