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Sunday, January 29, 2023

Men's Basketball

Despite early exit, NIT will prove a stepping stone


Head coach Kelvin Sampson said the NIT was the first step in the right direction for Houston, with an NCAA tournament bid expected to come soon. | Justin Tijerina/The Cougar

Three weeks after men’s basketball’s 81-62 loss to Georgia Institute of Technology in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, the Houston athletics front office views the postseason performance as a positive for the entire organization.

Houston traveled to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech in the NIT opening round on March 16. After a 22-8 season and the first postseason bid for the Cougars since 2010, many expected them to go further in the tournament. As a result of their early exit, the Cougars are finding a way to understand that they still had a good season.

“You can’t judge your season off of (a bad loss),” head coach Kelvin Sampson said. “You can’t let that override what a great year you had. We had a great year.”

Although the NIT is sometimes looked down upon by some fans, mainly because it doesn’t possess the prestige of the NCAA tournament, Sampson believes that it is a stepping stone to better regular season and postseason play in the near future.

“For us, getting to the NIT was a great first step,” Sampson said. “Our second year was better than our first, and we think our third year is going to be better than our second, and that’s what a program should do.”

Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics Hunter Yurachek also felt the NIT was a stepping stone for the program.

“For our men’s basketball program to have the season it had, and then get selected, then get a five seed in the NIT is the first step in building the program in what we want it to be,” Yurachek said. “To be able to advance to the NIT – that’s that next step we needed to take this year to get into a legitimate postseason men’s basketball tournament.”

The NIT bid is effecting more than just morale for the athletics department and athletes. The bid is  aiding in recruitment strategies for incoming athletes and validating the upcoming improvements to Hofheinz Pavilion, the Cougars’ home arena.

Future recruits can look at the progress the Cougars have made since Sampson became head coach and see the progression. Sampson’s first year with the Cougars resulted in a 13-19 record. His second year drastically improved to a 20-13 record and a bid in the NIT. This is a good time for recruits to come to Houston and play for a team that isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

“You look at some of the teams that were in the NIT, like South Carolina and Georgia Tech,” Yurachek said. “There are teams from Power 5 schools that are in it year in and year out. Many of them that win use that as a springboard for next year. I look at it as a positive as we go from last place in the conference and not participating in any postseason events to the 22-10 record.”

After a positive season for the Cougars, the upcoming renovations to Hofheinz Pavilion feel necessary to fans and front office alike. One year after TDECU Stadium’s opening, Houston opened its new state-of-the-art basketball training facility, so the next logical step would be to improve the arena.

“We’re getting ready to embark on renovations to the current basketball facility that will open up as a new renovated facility two and a half years from now,” Yurachek said. “You can see that direction within our men’s basketball program and what Kelvin Sampson and his staff is building right now.”

Overall, it seems to be a unanimous decision that the NIT is already creating a positive impact within Houston athletics, especially on the basketball side. If the Cougars can continue to follow the path they have created, good things are in store for Houston basketball.

“The positive is our team was selected to play in a very prestigious postseason tournament,” Sampson said. “That’s a great accomplishment for our team to have this year. Now, next year the goal will be to go to the NCAA tournament because I think that’s our next step.”


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