Coronavirus Men's Basketball Sports

Kelvin Sampson, UH battle through season marred by COVID-19

UH men's basketball coach Kelvin Sampson approaches his team's bench during pre-game introductions in a game against Central Florida at Fertitta Center on Jan. 17. | Andy Yanez/The Cougar

UH men’s basketball coach Kelvin Sampson approaches his team’s bench during pre-game introductions in a game against Central Florida at Fertitta Center on Jan. 17. | Andy Yanez/The Cougar

For years, Kelvin Sampson and his Houston men’s basketball program had a routine for games away from the city.

The team left the day before, arrived at its destination in the early afternoon and aimed to get a practice in at the opposing team’s arena.

So on Jan. 13, the Cougars did just that. They departed from the UH campus at around 10 a.m. to get on a plane that was set to depart around 11 a.m.. 

Shortly after Sampson’s team touched down in Tampa, Florida, they got the word. South Florida had received positive COVID-19 cases and subsequent contact tracing followed. Its game against UH scheduled for the following day had been postponed.

The Cougars, now stuck in Florida, scrambled to make the best of an unfortunate situation. One thing the UH head coach did not allow was for his players to whine.

“Here pretty soon, the death total is about to be over 400,000 Americans that have lost their lives, I do not want to hear one complaint about a basketball game getting canceled,” Sampson said. “We’ll get over it. We’re fine.”

Instead, his team called an audible. The first thing the Cougars did was contact USF to make sure that it was safe for them to use their facility to get a practice in. Once they were given the green light, that is exactly what they did.

“(We) got after it,” said UH senior guard DeJon Jarreau on the USF situation. “Got a lot of shots up in the gym. Just (to) keep our wind, keep us on our feet. The day of the game, we flew back. It was just a tragic thing that happened. I hope those guys are doing well.”

A break in tradition

On Friday after the Cougars were supposed to play the Bulls, Sampson met with reporters in a nearly 20-minute Zoom call. The focus was supposed to be on their upcoming matchup with UCF, but instead, much of the time was spent on COVID-19 protocols and adjustments.

“This isn’t a point the finger type of thing,” Sampson said. “As coaches, we need to help. We need to help our medical people.”

The Pembroke, North Carolina, native described a conversation he had with the team’s head athletic trainer, John Houston.

The two agreed on a change in approaching road games, Sampson said. The Cougars will now wait until they get back the test results of their opponents before departing. Even if it means leaving campus later and being unable to practice in the opposing team’s gym.

“That’s OK,” Sampson said. “We’ll get over that. It’s not the end of the world.”

The need to change yet another approach was a reminder of how the coronavirus is dictating this season.

The virus already has its fingerprints in a lot of things the Cougars do, and this will just add another thing to it.

In coaches meetings, UH wears masks. During film study, they wear masks. When they practice, Sampson and the staff wear a mask. They wear masks on the bus, on the plane and going to the hotel. 

The only time masks are not required is when players are in practice or on the court for a game, at least as of now.

Teams playing on the campus of Boston University, of the Patriot League, set a mask mandate during games at the beginning of January.

When asked about it, Sampson said that has not been discussed with the American Athletic Conference. He also added it shows a bigger issue of there being no universal rules within the NCAA.

“Everybody reacts differently,” he said.

Reaching the finish line

Ultimately, the goal of this season is to reach March for the 2021 NCAA Tournament after last year’s competition was canceled.

The NCAA already announced its plan of hosting the entire event within Indianapolis and its surrounding area. How teams get there, will be different for everybody.

Prior to the Cougars departing for Florida, Sampson was watching Temple’s game against SMU. What caught his eye was the Owls’ record at the time.

Entering that contest, they were only 1-3. Four games. That is all they had been able to play. In comparison, at that same time, UH’s record was 10-1. It had managed to play 11 matchups, and that includes a 15-day pause it had to endure in the middle of December.

“I have no complaints,” Sampson said. “I’m just thankful that we’re having the opportunity to play. I gave our kids a lesson in perspective.”

As the Cougars enter the heart of their conference schedule, plenty of uncertainty clouds the team. One thing Sampson is confident about is that not all games will be rescheduled. He called it: inevitable.

March Madness may start a week or two early this season. Not the tournament, but actual chaos. Fitting for a 12-month period that has been precisely that — maddening.

“It’s going to be a little bit crazy,” Sampson said. “I think what is going to happen is the week of the conference tournament, most everybody is going to play Saturday or Sunday (the week before). The conference tournament starts Thursday … Others play Friday.”

So that Monday, Tuesday and even Wednesday, Sampson thinks that there will be teams trying to reschedule games on those days. Whether it happens, only time will tell.

“Do you really want to add another game or a possible two games that week?” Sampson said. “Obviously we won’t be able to reschedule all … Some of these games, cannot and will not be made up.”

For more of The Cougar’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

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