An SI.com writer was at Hofheinz Pavilion Saturday night working on a story on new Cougar head coach Kelvin Sampson. He stood in one of the bunkers ringing the top of the arena, looking out over the mostly empty stands. He asked when the crowd was going to show up. Those of us in the local media standing next to him just shook our heads and said he was looking at the crowd, that this was the best it was going to get.
The Cougars won the game, defeating a winless Morgan State program by a 72-57 score. It was only the second game of the season for Houston, and it looked it. The Cougars only shot 32.9 percent from the floor (going only eight for 32 in the second half). When the players were missing badly with shots, they were turning it over with an ease not seen since Matt Schaub suited up for the Texans (23 turnovers for the game). And the free-throw shooting brought back memories of Phi Slama Jama, an era back when the inability to hit free throws probably cost the team a NCAA title.
It was an ugly game to watch. It was an ugly win. But the team pushed the ball up the court at a quick pace and pulled down 60 rebounds, a rebounding figure not seen from a UH basketball team since 1995.
"We are a very imperfect team," Sampson said after the game. "We have flaws, but our strength has to be our effort. When it is there we are going to win a lot of games with effort this year."
Sampson does believe the team will improve as more games are played. He liked the shot selection, noting his guys took open shots and that the turnovers would stop once point guard L.J. Rose returns from injury late next month. But while the play of the team might improve, it's doubtful that one ugly aspect of Saturday's game will improve: the attendance was awful and there's nothing to indicate that will get better any time soon.
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Sampson was hired to rejuvenate a program that's been pretty much dormant since the late 1980s. The hiring of Clyde Drexler in the late-90s brought a sense of excitement to UH, but that quickly turned to failure. Tom Penders kept the program afloat during his years at Houston, getting the team to numerous postseason tournaments, and returning the Cougars to the NCAA Tournament in 2010 -- its first trip since Pat Foster was coach -- but Penders was soon gone and James Dickey took over and things just fell apart. There is no excitement around Houston Cougars basketball anymore. Hofheinz is a dump that's falling apart due to years long neglect, and there are reports surfacing that the funds supposed to be applied to renovate Hofheinz have instead been siphoned off for TDECU Stadium, which is reportedly over budget. And the few players that have come along in years past that were supposed to generate excitement have departed for greener pastures.
There's not much Sampson can do beyond finding a way to win games. And that's something he's accomplished in a big way in past jobs coaching at Oklahoma and Indiana (just forget about those NCAA infractions). So for UH to succeed he's got to find a way to convince high school kids that the longtime lack of fan support (it was possible to buy tickets on game day even back when Clyde Drexler was a player), the decrepit facility, and history of losses is meaningless.
If Sampson can pull this gig off, it'll perhaps be the most impressive thing he's done in his entire coaching career. UH isn't a sleeping giant like Oklahoma. It's not a basketball powerhouse like Indiana. It's a minor, underfunded program in a conference with major players like UConn, Memphis, and Cincinnati, along with SMU, a formerly irrelevant basketball school on the rise due to the hiring of basketball legend Larry Brown (and the sudden influx of funds that comes with the hiring of a legend like Larry Brown).
The Cougars lost on Tuesday night to Harvard, dropping the team's season record to 2-1. The Cougars might get a few more wins in before conference play starts, but overall success for the season is very doubtful, no matter how much effort the team puts out each night. The SI.com reporter might have been disappointed by the crowd, but the UH crowd is a front-running one, and until Sampson's team finds a way to win, and to keep winning, then Hofheinz Pavilion is going to remain empty for a long time to come.