Men's Basketball Sports

Kelvin Sampson, the game master, leading UH’s evolution

UH men's basketball head coach Kelvin Sampson on the sidelines of the Fertitta Center in a game against Tulane during the 2019-20 season. | Mikol Kindle Jr./The Cougar

UH men’s basketball head coach Kelvin Sampson on the sidelines of the Fertitta Center in a game against Tulane during the 2019-20 season. | Mikol Kindle Jr./The Cougar

Even while sitting at No. 10 in the nation and coming off a perfect start to the 2020-21 regular season — a clean sweep of three games highlighted by a double-digit win over then-14th-ranked Texas Tech — Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson continues to maintain a strong poker face.

He is not new to this game. His first head coaching gig came nearly 40 years ago when he took the reins at Montana Tech in 1981. Starting a season 3-0 is nothing for him. Then again, even if he had a royal flush, Sampson would not budge.

“Don’t ever make conclusions in November,” the head coach told reporters on Tuesday morning via a Zoom call. “It’s OK to make an observation, but don’t ever make a conclusion.”

While the Cougars have given little to be critical about to start the year, the staff continues to strive for improvement.

The coaches have picked apart all three games and compiled a montage of mistakes the players have struggled with, Sampson said. While most video edits are created for social media, these go straight to the players’ phones so they can see what they need to clean up.

Through all the film breakdown, Sampson has listed a number of things that he believes his players can polish.

“We’re not discouraging certain things enough,” he said. “We’re evolving. We can get a lot better, and I think we will.”

Among the details, the head coach has also found plenty of things the team has done well. It is the 10th-ranked team for a reason, after all.

The biggest thing for the head coach, however, is not any flashy play. Instead, it is the commitment to winning; Sampson’s Cougars have embraced that above all else, which does not surprise him.

“The first thing that (my players) have to answer when they get here is how important winning is to you,” Sampson said. 

In order for a team to be successful at an elite level, the players have to be selfless, the Cougars’ coach said. That is sometimes new to student-athletes when they first join the program after years of being No. 1 for their respective high schools.

To be among the best teams, Sampson said, the players have to be willing to make sacrifices.

“Everyone has to be all-conference in their roles,” he said.

A player that did just that against Texas Tech was senior forward Justin Gorham, the UH coach said. 

Offensively, Gorham put up nine points, one of which was a 3-point basket, but it is the intangibles that Sampson cares about the most. Gorham tracked down seven rebounds, three of which were offensive boards.

He finished tied with junior guard Quentin Grimes and behind senior guard DeJon Jarreau, who garnered nine rebounds of his own. It is also not an accident that Grimes and Jarreau finished at the top in that category along with Gorham.

“There is a method to our mindset,” Sampson said.

The native of Pembroke, North Carolina, made sure to recall how Damyean Dotson, Armoni Brooks and Nate Hinton, all guards who at one point led the team in rebounding during their respective stints with the program.

When UH hosts South Carolina on Saturday, a rematch from a season ago when the Cougars visited the Gamecocks and won by 20 points, it will enter as an unfinished product. The team will continue to be incomplete until it reaches its final game, whenever that is.

In the meantime, Sampson will continue to hold his cards close to his chest, and the Cougars will continue to focus on themselves first and everyone else second. 

“We don’t practice plays,” Sampson said. “We practice pushing ourselves to the point where it hurts, and then you get to the next level and it hurts even more. Can (the players) get to the next level? How far can I push you to push yourself?”

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