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Sunday, September 24, 2023

Men's Basketball

For Houston, NCAA Tournament represents the beginning of a new season

UH basketball is the Midwest Regional's No. 1 seed and the betting favorites to win the national championship. | Anh Le/The Cougar

UH basketball is the Midwest Regional’s No. 1 seed and the betting favorites to win the national championship. | Anh Le/The Cougar

FORT WORTH — Just minutes after Houston lost the AAC Tournament championship game, Jamal Shead had a message for his teammates as they gathered in a room inside Dickies Arena to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show.

“New season now,” the UH point guard said.

Regular-season records can be thrown out the window because once the NCAA Tournament begins, nothing from the past matters.

Now, one loss sends you home.

“Our overall record is 31-3 but when you go into the tournament it’s win or go home,” Shead said. “There’s no more wins or losses. You have to win if you want to continue to play.”

Return to glory

The last time UH entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed, the Phi Slama Jama Cougars, led by Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Young, were the talk of college basketball.

After that golden era of UH basketball ended, the program rapidly declined and quickly fell off the map.

When Kelvin Sampson took over as the UH head coach in 2014, the Cougars had only been back to the NCAA Tournament four times since 1984 and didn’t make it past the first round in any of those years.

While UH went just 13-19 in Sampson’s first year, the foundation for the program’s resurgence was being built.

Fast forward to today and the Cougars are headed to their fifth straight NCAA Tournament. And unlike the program’s previous four NCAA Tournament appearances, where the Cougars were one and done, UH has done damage in the Big Dance, reaching the second round in 2018, Sweet 16 in 2019, Final Four in 2021 and Elite Eight in 2022.

This season, the Cougars reached new heights, achieving something that had only been done once prior in school history — entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed.

With a 31-3 record, UH’s second consecutive 30-plus win season, the Cougars were rewarded with the Midwest Regional’s top seed.

“To be where we were in 2014 and now being a 1-seed, that’s pretty cool,” Sampson said. “That’s a hell of an accomplishment.”

Sampson made sure his team knew how special what they did in the regular season was, telling his players to take out their phones so that they could record the moment when UH’s name was announced during Sunday’s bracket reveal.

“Our kids have earned the right to be a 1-seed,” Sampson said.

The road leads home

UH understands it has a chance to do something incredibly rare — play a Final Four in its home city.

Only five schools have ever done it since the NCAA Tournament’s conception in 1939.

UH hopes to become the sixth.

But like the Cougars have done all season, their mindset will not change despite the stakes being amplified.

Sampson refuses to let his team look at anything other than what is directly in front of them. He knows things typically don’t end well in a tournament when there is no margin for error for teams that focus on something further down the line.

The players have adopted the same mindset as its 67-year-old veteran coach.

“This is what we really prepare for all season, March Madness. It’s here now,” Sasser said. “Just got to go out there and play like it’s your last game, ‘cause it might be.”

While the end goal is to travel just 5.6 miles down the road from Fertitta Center to NRG Stadium, the Cougars’ journey begins in Birmingham, Alabama on Thursday night against Northern Kentucky.

Beating 16-seed Northern Kentucky is the only thing on UH’s mind.

“We understand that (the Final Four) is in Houston,” Shead said. “But you’ve got to win to get there.”

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