Kelvin Sampson likes his basketball team. He likes the effort, he likes the attitude, and good teams need both, he says. Sure, the season’s not started yet. Sure, the Houston Cougars have yet to play even an exhibition game. But the team’s good, it’s easy to coach and the guys are buying into what Sampson’s selling.
It’s easy to dismiss this as coach-speak, nothing more than a coach spouting platitudes about his team before the season starts in hopes that people will fall for the scam and go out and buy tickets. It’s easy to dismiss until you remember this time last year, when Sampson spoke of a team that would be lucky to compete, of a team for which he picked up his players from Walmart just before closing time.
Sampson was honest in his assessment of his team last year. That team was a small squad of players, often undersized, that lacked the talent or bench strength to keep up with the competition. So if he was realistic about last year’s squad, there’s no reason to think he’s not being realistic about his team this year, too.
“It’s doable,” Sampson said of competing in the American Athletic Conference in an interview with the Houston Press this week. “But I think you have to get a couple of recruiting classes. This [year’s team] was really our first recruiting class. That first year doesn’t count.”
So let’s call it realistic optimism coming from Kelvin Sampson. The team’s better. The players are better. The team’s record is going to be better. The team might even surprise people here and there with who it defeats, but it’s not going to win the conference or go to the NCAA Tournament. Not yet, at least.
“I’m excited about being here,” Sampson says. “I’m excited about what we can accomplish. I’m excited about this team.”
Sampson’s rebuilt a program before, having taken Washington State to its first NCAA Tournament in 11 years back in the 1990s before moving on to Oklahoma. He inherited almost nothing at Washington State, and turned it, for a short time, into a winning program. So it’s hard not to believe him when he speaks of Houston, of the state of the program, and about getting things turned back around.
“I love where we are,” he says. “I love Houston. I love the University of Houston. I love the fact we’ve got a school that’s not quite on the map, but it’s been there before. The people have been here before.”
It’s been a tough couple of decades for UH basketball. Except for a brief respite during Tom Penders’s tenure as head coach, the program has done nothing but fall from relevancy. The facilities have stagnated. The fans have disappeared. But it’s Sampson’s belief that an upturn is coming.
“But now, as we move into 2015 and beyond,” Samspon says, "you’re not going anywhere until you do something about these facilities. You change coaches every four years, but your address hasn’t changed. But the new practice facility — and we’re going to get this thing [Hofheinz Pavilion] renovated, too. That’s when Houston’s going to take off.”
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It’s not just about facilities. Sampson promises the team is better, that it’ll play a better, more exciting brand of basketball than last season. The team will push the ball up the court more, aim for 80 possessions a game instead of 40. And he can do that, he says, because the bench is deeper and his talent is better.
“It’s all about culture, man,” he says. “Whether it’s Washington State or Oklahoma, Indiana, Houston. If you don’t establish culture, you have no chance. I’ll tell you how important culture is…LeRon Barnes, Wes VanBeck, Ronnie Johnson (was redshirting last year), Eric Weary, Devonta [Pollard], L.J. Rose, [Chicken Knowles], those seven guys were here last year. They came back. It was easy to say, ‘You guys set the tone, set the pace, make sure these guys understand the importance of being on time, going to class, treating people with respect.’ There are things that you want your program to be known for. Being a classy program, doing things the right way on and off the court. And that was easy for these guys to do it because they’re great kids.”
Houston Cougar basketball has been a depressing event to watch the past four or five years. But Sampson likes his team. He loves the culture. He knows it was bad last year; he said last year it was bad. Is it all coach-speak? Or is it a case of realistic optimism? Well, that’s just a little something the fans are going to have to wait just a little bit longer to find out out.
It all tips off for the Cougars next Friday when Houston hosts Montana Tech in an exhibition game at Hofheinz Pavilion. And then it’s for real on Wednesday, November 18 when the Cougars host Prairie View.