Cutting nets has become tradition for the UH men’s basketball program
Before Kelvin Sampson arrived at Houston in 2014, the idea of the University’s men’s basketball team cutting down nets was unfathomable. Now, a short, 10-foot climb up a ladder to cut off a piece of the net has been an annual event for UH players, coaches and everyone else involved in the men’s basketball program.
On Tuesday night, the Cougars clinched their third American Athletic Conference regular season championship in four years, but the real party happened Thursday after blowing out Temple.
“We are the champions! We are the champions! We are the champions,” Taze Moore said to the crowd with a huge smile draped across his face.
Success through adversity
While winning a championship is nothing new to Sampson, what the 2021-22 Cougars accomplished hits those within the program a little different than the success in previous years given that two of UH’s best guards, Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, didn’t play a single minute in conference play.
After Sasser and Mark went down in December, almost everyone on the outside counted the Cougars out. Even Sampson himself didn’t know what his team was capable of achieving without two of its best playmakers.
“I don’t know if I would have picked us to win the league,” Sampson said. “But after going 15-2 after Dec. 22 and 23, I think long after I leave coaching I’ll always remember the 22nd and 23rd because it’s going to make me think about this group of kids.”
Despite all the cards folding the wrong way, the team never hung its heads or doubted itself. Rather, the focus and determination grew stronger within the walls of the UH men’s basketball program, coming to work each and every day with one goal — prove the outside doubters wrong.
“These guys have worked hard,” Sampson said. “They’ve listened. They’ve followed instructions. They’ve believed. The culture of our program, they embraced it.
Along with the veteran leadership of forward Fabian White Jr., the three players that Sampson brought in from the transfer portal elevated their games to another level.
Guard Kyler Edwards, who had lots of success during his three years at Texas Tech prior to UH, had a stretch of games where everything he threw up went in. And even when his shot wasn’t falling, Edwards still found ways to impact the game through his passing and defense.
Taze Moore, a 6-foot-5-inch graduate transfer from Cal State Bakersfield, showed flashes of greatness early in the year but became more consistent on both ends of the floor as the season progressed. Moore improved from averaging 7.1 points per game prior to Mark and Sasser’s injuries to scoring more than 10 points a night while also elevating his defensive play, embracing the challenge of guarding some of UH’s opponents’ best players.
UConn transfer Josh Carlton unleashed his inner beast in the paint, becoming a matchup nightmare for AAC opponents while also serving as a rim protector on defense.
“It’s not easy to play here because of our demands, but those three transfer guys ran to us,” Sampson said. “They wanted to come here. There wasn’t much recruiting that went on there.”
Even with all the experience on the roster, UH still had a big hole to fill in replacing point guard DeJon Jarreau from last season’s Final Four team. Jamal Shead, who played sparingly his freshman year, took a major step forward and not only became the Cougars’ primary ball handler, but also one of the leaders on the court as just a sophomore
All in all, the 2021-22 UH roster looked nothing like last year’s Final Four team, but end result was the same — sitting atop the AAC.
“We had basically a new team and these guys found a way to win a championship,” Sampson said.
Special night for Fabian White
When White walked off the Fertitta Center court for the 53rd and final time of his UH career on Thursday, there weren’t many in the building still sitting down.
The Cougars’ faithful got louder than it had all night as the all-time winningest Cougar walked off the floor to a standing ovation.
White first hugged his teammate J’Wan Roberts before walking to the bench area where he was embraced with a giant bear hug from his head coach.
Next, UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson, who has served as White’s position coach for the past five seasons, wrapped his arms real tight around No. 35, soaking in a moment that he will never forget.
“He’s earned every second of it,” Kellen Sampson said. “And (it’s special) for him to have this kind of moment in front of Cougar fans when there were so many hours spent by himself just putting in the work, putting in the time, putting in the effort to evolve and change his game. For everybody just to be able to really see and for him to feel that kind of encouragement, that’s why you get into coaching.”
For White, his time at UH has been so much more than just what he’s accomplished on the basketball court.
It’s taught him how to overcome adversity, as the 6-foot-8-inch forward dealt with a broken foot and torn ACL during his collegiate career.
It’s taught him hard work and perseverance.
It’s taught him what leadership looks like, helping him find his voice to speak up.
And most importantly, it’s taught him maturity.
“I walked on the court freshman year as a little boy, I walked off as a man,” White said.
Not done yet
While the Cougars have once again secured their place at the top of the AAC, the journey is far from over.
Even with all the success, the outside may still doubt that UH has what it takes to go deep in the NCAA Tournament. But that doesn’t bother the Cougars because they have proved their doubters wrong all season and don’t intend on stopping in March.
“We have a lot of guys that are strong-minded and that are willing,” Moore said. “When you got a team that’s willing like we are and that’s all together, it’s hard to beat a team like this.”
The road to a second consecutive Final Four will be tough, but Sampson’s Cougars are confident that they has what it takes.
UH is hoping to cut down a few more nets before the season comes to a close, starting with winning the AAC Tournament and ending with standing atop the college basketball world on the first Monday night of April.
“We’re not done yet,” Carlton said.