The words “leadership,” “team,” “vision” and “culture” echo throughout the bowels of Hofheinz Pavilion a few weeks before the beginning of the arena’s final season.
The Cougars are seven months removed from a season that saw them finish 12-6 in conference, and UH men’s basketball coach Kelvin Sampson and the players are excited to build upon last year’s improvements.
Entering his third year as head coach, Sampson has raised the expectations that he has for his team. The Cougars are already working toward surpassing them through the leadership from returning players.
“Through their leadership and through their actions, (the seniors have to) teach the new kids what our culture is,” Sampson said. “That’s their first responsibility. Your leaders and your seniors have to share the coach’s vision. It really defines who you are.”
Culture is a word that has been used heavily at UH. Football head coach Tom Herman also honors it in the TDECU Stadium just a block down from Hofheinz Pavilion.
At UH, culture is a mindset that players must buy into if they plan on making it on either the basketball or football teams.
“Culture will always be determined by your people,” Sampson said. “That’s why you always have to have the right people. Our culture in this program right now is being established. Guys like Armoni Brooks this time last year was at McNeil High School in Round Rock, Texas. Devin Davis was at Odessa Junior College. They don’t know anything about this culture.”
Sampson said that if you gave all 10 American Athletic Conference coaches a 3×5 index card and told them to write down how they felt about the Cougars — it would be “good,” “bad” or “indifferent.”
He said that it is up to the seniors to drive a culture that breeds respect and positive feedback. They will determine what is written on the index cards.
Though Sampson is still establishing the values he wants associated with UH basketball, his returning players have followed Sampson’s vision and made sure newcomers are doing the same.
“It’s up to all the seniors,” Senior guard Damyean Dotson said. “From that standpoint, I’ve got to be a better leader this year and instead of talking about it, I’ve got to show it.”
It can be difficult for seniors to focus on the team’s greater good when it is their last season and they feel that they have yet to prove themselves. The pressure for a player to do the latter can come from all aspects of his life — family members, coaches and even NBA scouts — and can be immense.
The seniors at UH acknowledge this and know they must work hard to not break down. They realize that basketball is a team sport and individual success is second.
‘It’s the grand finale’
Although the seniors have individual goals for the season, they all reiterated their desire to help the team improve in every way. Dotson said he wanted to improve his decision-making and improve his defense all the way around.
Senior forward Danrad “Chicken” Knowles has an even loftier ambition for the team.
“The only goal I have is to win the conference championship and win the conference overall, really,” Knowles said.
Knowles’ vision for the team may be ambitious, but combined with Sampson’s coaching ability and influence the team has the opportunity to succeed in their final season.
If the Cougars can grow from last year and have an even better season, Sampson should be content with the direction of his team.
As the season opener approaches, the Cougars continue to mold the culture that they are fostering. For many of the seniors, the chance to play in an arena they’ve called home for the final time is a motivator to achieve success.
“It’s crazy that Hofheinz and I are going at the same time.” Knowles said. “I’ve been here for four years. It’s the grand finale. We just got to do it.”