Kelvin Sampson, UH adjust as COVID-19 impacts season’s progression
A season ago during the 2019-20 campaign, the Houston men’s basketball team was still close to mid-December after it had just finished playing its 10th game of the season.
The Cougars held a 7-3 record and they were about to board a plane to Hawaii to compete in the Diamond Head Classic.
Fast forward to the 2020-21 season and 11th-ranked UH just reached the 10-game threshold on Wednesday. The Cougars have also played five conference games already. At the 10-game mark a season ago, they had played zero.
“It’s getting a lot later a lot earlier now,” UH head coach Kelvin Sampson told reporters on Friday in a Zoom call. “Because of the pandemic, this is not a normal year for progression. Everything is later.”
After 10 games into this season, UH boasts a 9-1 record, including 4-1 against American Athletic Conference opponents. Despite being a second away from being a perfect 10-0, Sampson feels this team has yet to fully find its identity.
The Cougars started 4-0 before COVID-19 struck the team hard and forced them to take a 15-day pause in between games.
Since returning, UH has been 5-1, but the team has struggled to find a full-time groove as a unit, particularly when it comes to its younger players.
Freshmen Tramon Mark and J’Wan Roberts have been the prominent players that have been impacted.
Prior to the pause, Mark averaged 23.5 minutes a game in those first four contests while Roberts averaged 13.8.
Since the Cougars returned, Mark’s minutes have been reduced to 18.7 and Roberts’ has fallen to only 8.9 per contest.
Sampson has said Mark has been one of the players that has been affected the most by the coronavirus and the UH staff has had to ease him back into the rotation.
Roberts’ decrease in minutes has also impacted UH’s big man rotation, which has forced senior forward Justin Gorham to play 34 or more minutes in three of the team’s last six games, which is something Sampson wants to reduce for the Maryland native.
On top of the coronavirus impacts, the Cougars have now have to deal with losing their leading scorer a season ago in Caleb Mills, who entered the season with high expectations.
While the sophomore guard only made an appearance in four games due to ankle injuries and what Sampson has hinted at being COVID-19 issues, he was still UH’s go-to scorer in crunch time.
That was evident from his final appearance with the program when Mills hit a shot with six seconds left on the game clock that put the Cougars up by one against Tulsa.
Now UH will have to go to a different player when a game is on the line in the closing seconds, which it still has plenty of talent to choose from. Specifically guards Marcus Sasser and Quentin Grimes, but it is still something the team has to adjust to.
“For (all teams), we’re all still around our ninth or 10th game,” Sampson said. “We’re still growing. Nobody is a finished product yet. We are still trying to figure out who’s where and who’s what.”
As the Cougars approach the midway point of their conference schedule already, Sampson said he just aims to keep pushing his team through the unique season and its adversity.
The Pembroke, North Carolina, native head coach compared it to landing an airplane because of the turbulence and how multiple obstacles get in the way as the process goes along.
For now, all Sampson can hope for is to guide his team safely onto the runway.
As for the product on the court, he is confident his team will grow down the stretch as well.
“We’re certainly not a finished product,” Sampson said, “which is why I think our team can continue to get better.”
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