Surely the University of Houston would not dominate the nation’s toughest men’s college basketball conference the way it dominated its previous league. Even Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson wasn’t sure what to expect from this debut season in the Big 12 after six straight years of finishing first or second in the American Athletic Conference. Sampson warned that the math might change.

“We get the internet here in Houston,” he said last fall. “We get cable. We don’t need someone to tell us how good Kansas is or how good Baylor is. We get it. We know that our record isn’t going to be what it was, but I’m excited about it.”

Or maybe the bottom line wouldn’t change much at all. Welcome to the transition season that has been no transition at all. So far, UH’s core values under Sampson—defense, rebounding, effort—have the Cougars  atop the Big 12 standings in a conference in which nine teams are projected to make the NCAA tournament.

No team in the conference has been more impressive this season than Houston (19–2), which is ranked fourth in the Associated Press Top 25 and enters Saturday’s road game against number-eight Kansas projected to be a number one seed when the NCAA tournament begins next month.

“We’ve scrimmaged them the last two years, and it’s a bloodbath,” Texas coach Rodney Terry said after a 76–72 overtime loss to Houston on Monday in Austin. “It’s the best defensive team we’ve played this season. They’re number one in almost every category, not only in the Big 12 but in the country.

“They thrive on second-chance opportunities. How many years has Coach Sampson been there at Houston? That’s what they do. That’s their culture. That’s their DNA.”

Kansas State coach Jerome Tang said Houston “may be the best defensive team I’ve ever seen” after watching his team turn the ball over eighteen times in a 74–52 loss last week.

Tang ran down the UH roster and marveled at Sampson’s ability to keep a core group together in this college sports era of transfer-portal comings and goings: forward Ja’Vier Francis has three years in the program, forward J’Wan Roberts five years, guard Jamal Shead four years, guard Emanuel Sharp three years, and guard Mylik Wilson two years. He said it begins with Sampson.

“He’s got a core of dudes that understand the culture of what this program is about,” Tang said. “And they can foster that to the younger guys and bring it every day. They set the standard for what it’s supposed to look like on the defensive end.

“It’s hard to simulate it in practice,” Tang said of Houston’s defense. “You know what they’re gonna do. It’s just that you can’t duplicate it for the guys to adjust to the speed. They have a bunch of multiple-effort guys that are always covering up for each other.”

Since losing back-to-back road games at Iowa State and TCU, Houston has won five in a row, including a 77–54 blowout of a Texas Tech team then ranked nineteenth in the nation. “There’s no confusion on who the tougher team was,” Tech coach Grant McCasland said. “I thought Shead was not going to lose this game. No matter what it looked like, his will to win, his physicality on both sides of the ball, his maturity, his leadership—he looked like the best guard in our league today.”

Ten years ago, Sampson took over a Houston program that hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game in thirty years and set about to change, well, everything. He had the Cougars back in the NCAA tournament in his fourth season and in the Final Four in his seventh (2021).

They’ve won twelve of seventeen March Madness games under Sampson, making it to the Elite Eight in 2022 and the Sweet Sixteen in 2019 and 2023. Houston has spent 77 straight weeks in the Associated Press Top 25, the longest active streak in the nation. All Sampson hasn’t done at UH is win a national championship, but with his team closing in on a sixth straight appearance in the NCAA tournament, optimism abounds.

“We keep knocking on the door,” Sampson told a tip-off pep rally on campus last fall. “One of these years, we’ll break through, and we’ll be the ones cutting down the nets.”

UH’s consistently excellent recruiting, coaching, and talent has the program in a position where the Cougars felt confident stepping into the Big 12 this season to compete against a blue blood program like Kansas and the other traditional conference powerhouse teams. “Houston leads the nation in playing hard,” ESPN’s Jay Bilas posted on X.

Sampson, who is 68, has a record of 251–76 at Houston. He began this season with the challenge of replacing four key contributors from a team that went 33–4 and was upset by Miami in the Sweet Sixteen of last year’s NCAA tournament. 

The coach added transfer guards L. J.  Cryer from Baylor and Damian Dunn from Temple, along with highly regarded freshman forward Joseph Tugler, from Cypress Falls High School, in Houston. So far, the newcomers have melded well with a roster that included holdovers like Roberts, Shead, and Sharp, who are among the nation’s best two-way players on offense and defense.

No player in Houston’s regular rotation is taller than six eight, and the Coogs are proof that rebounding and defense are more about effort and coaching than height. Houston is number one in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 52.9 points per game.

UH puts its players in a position to succeed with scouting reports that detail virtually everything an opposing team has done—and probably will want to do—on the court. Houston’s ability to anticipate, get into passing lanes, and force turnovers seems almost clairvoyant at times.

But all of it is dependent on getting players who are willing to practice defense as much as their shooting and passing. Sampson and his staff coach players hard, and it’s not for everyone. 

Shead went for 25 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists in 42 intense minutes against the Longhorns on Monday. Asked about it, Sampson said Shead’s progress had been steady: he’d been a freshman on a Final Four team, a sophomore on an Elite Eight squad, and a junior on a Sweet Sixteen team. He has gotten better every season and learned that at Houston, things have to be done a certain way. His statistical averages this season reflect the kind of play Sampson expects: 12.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.2 steals. Roberts is cut from the same cloth: 8.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.1 steals.

“We’re not trying to be the prettiest team,” Sampson told reporters after Monday’s win. “I don’t know that that’s ever been my deal. We just try to win the game. . . . The thing that has made our programs good over the decades—I thought that was what won the game tonight—was offensive rebounding.”

That Houston can play this game with no regular player taller than six eight is one of the topics that gets Sampson going. Asked if this might be one of his best defensive teams, he said: “Can be.”

Without prompting, he added: “We’re not undersized. Sometimes people look at how tall you are. That has nothing to do with how big you play. Our kids are long, and we’re athletic, and we get from A to B pretty good. We play better against taller teams because they don’t move very well.”

He ticked off the wingspans of his interior players—all of them between seven five and seven six. “Some people, they get their ego based on [recruiting] a kid that’s seven foot,” he said. “ ‘We’re gonna be really good.’ Uh, no, you’re gonna be really slow. I’m not a fan, I’m a coach. I know how to use my pawns, if you will.”

But it begins with effort. “I don’t coach attitude or effort,” he said. “Those are nonnegotiables around here.”

And the student and alumni fan bases have taken notice. After Tilman Fertitta, chairman of the UH board of regents, hired Sampson to rebuild the Cougars in 2014, Sampson found himself personally recruiting students to attend games. “I would go disrupt the student center,” he told a UH publication. “I’d go into classes. I’d walk around campus just begging people to come to the game.” These days, Fertitta Center’s 7,100 seats are often filled long before tip-off, and the atmosphere is as good as almost any in the country.

But Houston isn’t playing at home on Saturday—it’s headed to Lawrence, Kansas, to face one of the sport’s most storied programs inside one of the toughest arenas in the country in which to win on the road: Allen Fieldhouse. And although a 19–2 start to its first season in the Big 12 is more than enough proof that Houston belongs in the best college hoops conference in the land, a win at Kansas would be a heck of a statement.

“We understand that we’re pretty good,” Shead told PaperCity. “But we understand that we can get better. . . . We work so hard that it has to pay off at some point. We have to have a little swagger to ourselves just because of how hard we work.”