Kelvin Sampson Had to Rebuild the Cougars This Season

The Houston Cougars finished the season last Wednesday with a rather desultory 81-62 loss to Georgia Tech in the first round of the NIT. This loss came upon the heels of the disappointing 72-69 American Conference Tournament loss to Tulane.

The finish was definitely disappointing for the team and the fans. But let's reflect on what exactly Houston did this season, on just how much better and stronger the Cougar program is compared to those in years past. The 22-10 record isn’t really one that UH fans, players or coaches should be upset about. What UH did this season should instead be celebrated.

“This is part of the process,” head coach Kelvin Sampson told the Press back in February. “The one thing I’ve learned about a process is understanding, and have a plan, and understand there is no progress without the process, and the process can be painful sometimes. But believe in it. I’ve been through this process so many times.”

It’s doubtful that at that time Sampson could foresee how this season would end for his team. But the quote still rings true. Sampson took over a program in disrepair, one that saw six players leave the school within days after Sampson was named the new head coach, and had it playing postseason ball in just his second year.

Sampson’s process involves building the program from the ground up, including bringing in players who want to be at Houston, who want to work. He brings in a system of ball movement, of pushing the ball and looking for players with open shots. His players must be unselfish. If a player breaks a rule, that player doesn’t play. And Sampson demands accountability from his players on the court and in the classroom.

“There seems to be higher accountability,” Cougar radio broadcaster Matt Thomas told the Press. “Not accepting the status quo. Not accepting small strides. Getting better each and every practice. Being a different basketball team than you were three or four games, not relaxing. It’s just an intensity that I don’t think fans have seen around here in a long time.”

Sampson’s attempting to build more than just a team. He wants the squad to be a family, to play for each other and not just to play for the name on the back of the jersey. He literally is turning UH basketball into a family.

“But I’m not sure this is not the best job I’ve ever had,” Sampson told the Press. “First of all, my son [Kellen] is one of my assistant coaches. Look at him — this is his deal after practice every day [running shooting drills and working with players who want to keep working after practice]. He’s one of the reasons these kids get better, because he does a great job of working with them individually and developing them. My daughter [Lauren] has made a tremendous improvement with the student attendance — she’s done a great job with this attendance. She’s taken it personally. We didn’t have anybody here before working for us [in marketing…This is her background, and she’s invested in this.”

The Cougars were picked by many to finish no better than seventh in the American Conference this season. The team was young. There were still holes in the lineup, and the lineup lacked height and length and size. Sampson said before the season that he wasn’t sure what he was going to have with his team. But he knew he would have good guard play, that he would have more depth and that this team would be better than it was last season.

The team took advantage of an incredibly soft out-of-conference schedule to build up a bunch of early wins. But even then, the improvement in the team was easy to spot. The team didn’t just win games, it was obliterating opponents, something it had been unable to do. That also let the team gain confidence, and it gave playing time to bench players who might otherwise have not received much game experience.

The level of competition is going to have to improve for UH in seasons to come, especially if the school wants to be taken seriously come NCAA Tournament time. Ultimately, that’s what it is about.

“I have a passion,” Sampson said. “I want to win championships. I didn’t come here to win games. I came here to win championships. This is a school where you can because of the city we’re in. This is a great city. I love Houston.”

So don’t wallow in how the UH season ended. Instead, look back in wonder at what has been accomplished with Sampson and his squad in just two years. And look forward to the future and what can be. The process is progressing nicely, and there is an excellent foundation now in place for future success. 
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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal