As if the city of Houston hosting the Final Four in April didn’t already have enough Texas flavor, there’s now the tantalizing possibility that an Elite Eight matchup between the University of Houston and University of Texas could decide one of the berths. Both the Cougars and Longhorns will have to win their Sweet 16 games on Friday for it to happen, which means that both teams’ coaches have so far swatted away as premature any questions suggesting either UH coach Kelvin Sampson or UT interim head coach Ronald Terry might be looking ahead to an in-state grudge match. Players, too, know not to bite. There it is, though, on Sunday’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament schedule, still officially listed as TBD vs. TBD.
If the Cougars and Longhorns defeat Miami and Xavier, respectively, in the Sweet 16, we might get to witness the most significant college basketball game ever played between two Texas teams. The last time Houston played Texas was in 2013, when they met in a tertiary postseason tournament called the College Basketball Invitational.
Such a setting was unworthy of a rivalry packing as much bad blood as UH and UT have. Did I mention bitterness, most of it from the Cougars’ side? In fact, it would be almost impossible to overstate the hatred UH alumni and administrators have for UT, and they’ve waited 27 long, frequently demoralizing years to find a way to stick it to the Longhorns.
To hear the UH crowd tell it, Texas was the driving force behind Houston being left out of the Big 12 after the 1996 breakup of the Southwest Conference. UH folks also blame UT for making sure Houston stayed on the sidelines whenever the Big 12 considered expansion.
As a result, the University of Houston has been left to tread water in second-tier conferences for almost three decades. Toward the beginning of that period, fundraising dried up, facilities decayed, and plenty of school officials and donors believed sports would never again be an important aspect of UH campus life.
That changed in 2014, when head coach Kelvin Sampson took over the men’s basketball program and began piecing together one of the nation’s best programs. These days, with Sampson’s Cougars back on the national stage and construction and fundraising booming once again on the UH campus, optimism abounds. Houston has spent close to $100 million on a refurbished basketball arena and a first-rate practice facility. Sampson now routinely signs coveted recruits, and UH has been to the Elite Eight, Final Four, and Sweet 16 in the three NCAA Tournaments before this one.
Most significantly, Houston will finally return to a Power Five conference—even if it’s a diminished one—on July 1, when it joins the Big 12. That move was made possible by Texas’s and Oklahoma’s decision to join the Southeastern Conference next year.
UH administrators were already considering what kind of special torment the Cougars might be able to inflict on the Longhorns when they play a football game at UH next fall in their final Big 12 season. Now, the NCAA Tournament has cracked open the door for another kind of vengeance.
Forgive the folks at the University of Houston for seeing this as their year. After a regular season in which the team has won 33 of 36 games and spent several weeks ranked first in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, UH is the top-seeded team in the NCAA Tourney’s Midwest Regional. Through their first three halves of March Madness basketball, the Cougars hadn’t looked much like potential national champions against Northern Kentucky and Auburn. Then, at halftime last Saturday, trailing Auburn by ten points and with starting guards Jamal Shead and Marcus Sasser in foul trouble, something clicked. Houston smothered Auburn 50–23 in the second half to win 81–64. It did so with a defense that has been one of the nation’s best all season and an offense sparked by reserve guard Tramon Mark, who scored 20 of his 26 points in the second half.
“Poise is something you can see when nobody else is around,” Sampson said, describing his team’s demeanor. “We prepare when nobody’s looking, so when everybody is looking, we’re ready. That doesn’t mean the ball’s always going to go in. When Jamal and Marcus got four fouls, there wasn’t any panic. We kind of knew what we were going to do.”
Sampson sat at his desk in Houston on Tuesday with a board on his right with notes on that day’s practice and a Miami Hurricanes scouting report on his left. His roster is dotted with players that could have gone almost anywhere, a far cry from his early seasons at UH. For instance, freshman forward Jarace Walker is projected to be a top-ten NBA Draft pick after this season.
“People forget this at times,” Sampson said, “but we lose four starters every season. The difference in programs and teams is usually accountability. Everybody’s got a team. But do you have a program? Do you have a culture? That’s standards and expectations and accountability. The word that’s probably not used enough is relationships. You gotta have a relationship. I gotta be able to trust you, and they gotta be able to trust me. That’s why telling them the truth even though it’s something they may not want to hear is what they love.”
Sampson understands that UH fans are cautiously optimistic about the chances of reaching another Final Four that will be played a few miles from campus at NRG Stadium. Did we mention that it’ll be the nineteenth and last Final Four for legendary CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz, a University of Houston alum?
While the two teams are almost mirror images of one another on the court, their coaches could hardly be more different from one another. Sampson has taken nineteen teams to the NCAA Tournament. Until this month, Terry had only been head coach for a single game, in 2016 when he was at Fresno State. Their styles also contrast. Sampson loves his players, but he can be blunt and demanding of them. Meanwhile, Terry’s demeanor emphasizes joy.
“We can play really good and lose Friday because Miami is really good,” Sampson said. “Miami could play really good and lose. But one of us is going to go home. It’s the way it is. It’s my nineteenth NCAA Tournament. I’ve won a bunch of games, I’ve lost a bunch of games. That’s just the way it is.”
As compelling as Houston’s season has been, no team has had a more interesting ride than Texas, and at the moment, Rodney Terry might be the story of the entire tournament. Terry has been the Texas interim head coach since Chris Beard was suspended in December after being arrested for domestic violence and fired the next month. When the season began, the Longhorns’ experienced roster held championship ambitions, and after Beard was fired, Terry brought a sense of calm and optimism to what could have spiraled into a lose season.
Terry knew what he had in Austin: a veteran coaching staff and a roster with six seniors, super-seniors, or grad students. Texas is 21–7 under his watch, and the team has rallied to win from deficits of 18, 14, and 12 points. Beginning with the Big 12 Tournament, the Longhorns have limited five postseason opponents to 58.0 points per game and 38-percent shooting. Texas has forced 69 turnovers in the five games.
Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte has not removed the “interim” from Terry’s title, but that seems like a formality given how the Longhorns have played and how the players and coaches say they feed off the coach’s leadership and his knack for saying the right thing. “His level of calmness and communication and trust in him gives us a sense of confidence,” forward Timmy Allen said, “and it lets us go out and play free.”
Senior guard Marcus Carr added: “Not only are we out there playing for each other on the court, but we do understand that we’re playing for R.T. as well. He’s coaching for us. We want to see each other succeed, and we understand the more we succeed, the more success will come to other people as well.”
Like Houston, the Longhorns have been tested so far in the tournament. Against Penn State in the second round, an 11-point lead vaporized in a matter of minutes, and with 4:48 remaining, Texas trailed 58–55. “We got in the huddle,” Terry recalled, “and I said, ‘Guys, we’ve been here before, it’s nothing we haven’t faced this year. We’ve played the toughest league in the country. Let’s go out right now. We’ve got to put it on our defense. We’ve done it all year long. We’ve got to get a stop and score, and put some stops together here and try to finish this game out.’
“I thought our guys went out and did that at a very high level,” Terry said. Texas held Penn State scoreless on its next seven possessions as forward Dylan Disu took over, scoring 10 of his 28 points in the final five minutes.
“Seven guys came back from last year’s team,” Terry said, “and they came back because they wanted more of this madness here, and they wanted to continue to have an incredible year. I’m so blessed to work with this group of guys every day. They’re just a lot of fun to be around. We get our work in, we have fun and we’ve had an incredible journey.”