Sampson’s tenure marked by changing culture
The 2017-18 season for the men’s basketball team was one of history, excitement and overall progression, as the Cougars won their first NCAA Tournament game since 1984.
The backbone of the team, head coach Kelvin Sampson, used his 30-plus years of coaching experience to earn the Cougars a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and No. 22 ranking in the USA Today postseason Top 25 poll. This new wave of success in the sleeping giant that is UH was a result of recruiting all types of players that Sampson brought to the struggling program.
“(Sampson’s) one of the best coaches in college basketball,” said senior guard Wes VanBeck. “(He) completely U-turned the program, and it’s on a great path.”
Sampson was announced as the team’s new head coach on April 3, 2014 after spending six years as an assistant coach in the NBA, first with the Milwaukee Bucks and then the Houston Rockets. Before that, he had been the head coach at Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana, leading each school to the NCAA Tournament. Given that past knowledge, Sampson knew the key to developing a winning culture was recruiting talented players with character.
First year struggles
During his inaugural season, Sampson did not have those players. He did not have many players, period, requiring his assistant coaches to practice with the team. Sampson worked with what he had, ranging from walk-ons, transfers and overall underrated players. He looked for “talented kids that are coachable,” which he said are the key to a prosperous team.
“Our coaching staff is committed to bringing in talented kids that fit our culture,” Sampson said.
VanBeck, a walk-on, was one such example for Sampson. A player not heavily recruited out of high school, VanBeck fit the mold Sampson sought after. Sampson found the guard through former UT star guard TJ Ford and offered him a walk-on position. VanBeck eventually received a scholarship in August 2016.
“It was really just a matter of whoever would give me an opportunity to play,” VanBeck said. “Coach Sampson was the only guy who really gave me a shot, and I’m forever indebted to him for that.”
Devonta Pollard, a five-star power forward recruit that did not sign until the last possible day, joined VanBeck on Sampson’s team in his initial season as the Cougars’ head coach. Ultimately, the team finished with a 13-19 record, but Sampson saw positives with his first squad as they won their final three regular season games.
“That told me a lot about our culture and how the kids accepted it and bought in,” Sampson said. “That was something that was redeeming to me.”
The core group
The following season, three of the most influential players to Sampson’s coaching style joined the progressing program: 2015 Guy V. Lewis Award recipient, Galen Robinson Jr., Howard College transfer Rob Gray Jr. and Oregon transfer Damyean Dotson, who had been dismissed from Oregon prior to joining Sampson. These three were a combination of cast-aside talent and those looking for an opportunity to prove themselves, leading them to buy into Sampson’s philosophy.
Gray, Robinson and Dotson helped propel UH to a 22-10 record and a third place conference finish during the 2015-16 season. The trio, paired with Pollard, accounted for 52 points per game that season.
“Galen trusted me. Rob trusted me,” Sampson said. “We convinced (Dotson) that this would be the best place for him to develop.”
The following season, the Cougars added three-star recruit guard Armoni Brooks to their roster, adding another layer of skill to the squad. However, they managed only to match their success from the year before, going 21-11 to finish third in the conference, falling short of the expectations the team had set for itself.
“It was a matter of chasing that NCAA Tournament appearance, which we felt like we should have done my sophomore and my junior year, but we had some slip-ups,” VanBeck said.
Dotson would go on to be drafted in the second round of the 2017 NBA draft, but the 2017-18 season was the breakout year for the Cougars.
Gray, Robinson and VanBeck joined transfers Corey Davis Jr. and Breaon Brady and three-star freshman forward Fabian White Jr. to push UH into the national light. The team notched a 27-8 record, earned three wins over ranked opponents, reached the American Athletic Conference Championship Game and won their first NCAA Tournament game since 1984.
In four short years, Sampson has brought pride and excitement back to a once-dominant program of college basketball.
But for Sampson, winning is only half the reward for these players. Sampson pushes to see all his players graduate, as they excel on and off the court. Gray received his degree in sociology in December, and fellow seniors Devin Davis and VanBeck are set to graduate come May. Even Dotson, an NBA athlete, is on track to finish his last course over the summer.
“The fact that our kids are succeeding on the court but also graduating, those are the moments I appreciate the most,” Sampson said.