LeRon Barnes didn’t have to stick around with the Houston Cougars. He could have left in April 2014, after head coach James Dickey’s departure. Six other UH players left at that time, and others considered it, especially after new coach Kelvin Sampson said he wouldn’t stop anyone from leaving who didn’t want to be at the school. But LeRon Barnes stayed.
Then came last May when Barnes graduated. Because he had been redshirted for a season, he still had a year of eligibility left. And as a graduate, he could have transferred to any school he wanted and he would not have had to sit out a season. But once again, Barnes chose to stay at Houston.
LeRon Barnes isn’t the flashiest player on the court. He’s not going to make spectacular plays or go off for 30 points. But if you want to get a smile from Sampson, just ask him about Barnes. The same goes for Barnes’s teammates, who made him a co-captain for the second straight season.
He’s just that kind of guy.
Sampson calls him dependable. He knows every night what he’s going to get from Barnes. He’ll get some points when the team needs points. He’s the team’s best offensive rebounder, even though he’s just a tad over 6’5”. He’s the guy Sampson generally charges with guarding the opponent's best offensive player.
“When I hang it up and I look back over my career,” Sampson told the Press, “you feel blessed to be able to have the opportunity to coach guys like LeRon Barnes. He is special.”
When asked why he stayed at Houston when he had the chance to leave, his answer’s simple. He likes Houston. He likes the University of Houston. He likes the diversity and how he sees something different every day. And he wants to win, and he wants to win at Houston.
“I saw the team we had coming back, and I felt like that we could do something big this year,” he said. “And I wanted to win a ring also.”
The Cougars probably won’t win a ring this year. The Cougars lost 69-66 to Temple last night to fall to 19-8 (9-6 in conference play). The Cougars lack height, and there’s not just one guy who can go off on offense and carry the team to a win. But this is the best basketball that has been seen around Hofheinz Pavilion in years. The team has bought into the Kelvin Sampson culture of being responsible for your actions on and off the court. It’s a team that plays within itself, that shares the ball, always looking for a teammate with a better shot. The ball rotates and is never stagnant. The Cougars are a team that works on defense, helps with assignments.
That’s why Barnes is so important to this team, and to Sampson. He doesn’t complain. He just does his job. He’ll take a shot if he has it, but he’ll just easily pass the ball to an open teammate, then crash the boards for the rebound.
“I always put him on the other team’s best player,” Sampson says.” When he got here, LeRon wasn’t a great shooter, he didn’t finish that well, he didn’t really have a lot of offensive skill, but he’s really developed into a nice wing. He’s gotten to where he can make a three now. But his greatest value to me is that he is a shining example of what I want players in this program to be like.”
And that’s something that Barnes echoes when you speak to him. He’s quiet, respectful, a seriously nice guy who works to serve his team in whatever fashion necessary.
“I’m just trying to do whatever the team needs me to do,” he says. “I’m just trying to get open. I’m not trying to do anything spectacular. I’m just doing what the team needs me to do.”
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Barnes scored just three points last night. But those points came off of a three-point shot from the corner, just in front of the UH bench. The shot gave UH its first lead of the night at 35-33, and it helped power a UH run that saw the team build a 54-44 lead. Temple eventually stopped the Cougar run and got the win.
LeRon Barnes will have to leave the Houston Cougars when this season is over. There’ll be no more eligibility left. But his presence will be felt by the team for a long time. He could have left twice. But he stuck around. He embodied what Kelvin Sampson wants from the team, from the players. He set the example.
“Senior Day’s coming up, and I dread it,” Sampson says. “I really do. I hate Senior Games for guys like LeRon because I will literally cry my eyes out. I know that the end is coming for him. You think about it now, when everybody’s looking for reasons to leave, when everybody’s listening to somebody, LeRon could’ve left twice.”
But LeRon Barnes stayed. He’s just that kind of guy.