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Friday, May 14, 2021

Men's Basketball

‘Sustained excellence’: UH basketball has become a premier program


UH basketball head coach Kelvin Sampson directs his team against the Baylor Bears in the first half of their Final Four semifinal game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 3 in Indianapolis. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

UH basketball head coach Kelvin Sampson directs his team against the Baylor Bears in the first half of their Final Four semifinal game of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 3 in Indianapolis. | Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

When Kelvin Sampson took over the Houston basketball program in 2014, Renu Khator, president of UH, had a running joke every time she attended a Cougars basketball game.

If you’re going to watch the basketball game, make sure you wear your sneakers because you don’t know if you’ll get called on to play on the court, Khator joked.

The reason Khator made this joke was that not only did no one show up to games during Sampson’s early years as the UH head coach, but no one really wanted to play for the Cougars either.

Khator called Hofheinz Pavillion, the home of the Cougars from 1967-2017, a ghost town” in the early 2010s.

Former UH guard Galen Robinson Jr., who Sampson called one of the “trailblazers” for the transformation of the UH program, recalled going to Cougars games with his good friend Steve after he committed to UH and just how depressing the gameday experience was.

There would be nobody there, (UH) would be losing, Robinson said. It was a terrible environment.

Armoni Brooks, another former UH guard, who alongside Robinson, helped pave the way for the program’s rise, remembers how no one cared about the Cougars when he first stepped foot on campus.

For a while, there was a point where no one was hearing about UH, Brooks said. It was almost irrelevant if anything about UH was going on.

Despite having all the cards stacked against him when he took the job, Sampson believed that UH could become a team that wins championships as long as the University gave him the tools necessary to succeed.

President Renu Khator said she knew after 10 minutes that new coach Kelvin Sampson was the right coach for UH. | File photo

President Renu Khator said she knew after 10 minutes that new coach Kelvin Sampson was the right coach for UH. | File photo

And the University delivered, providing the funds for a state-of-the-art development center and practice facility, as well as transforming Hofheinz Pavillion into Fertitta Center to provide UH fans with the best possible game-day experience.

Sampson returned the favor shortly after, delivering two American Athletic Conference titles, one conference tournament championship and three trips to the NCAA Tournament, including two Sweet Sixteen’s and most recently the program’s first Final Four since 1984.

Sampson hasn’t just built a couple of good teams, but an elite program that has jumped into the category of an NCAA basketball powerhouse.

“Every year there has been progression,” Khator said. “I would say if you look at the last four years,(Sampson) has successfully built sustained excellence. Not just excellence, sustained excellence.”

Long gone are the days of empty crowds and zero energy at UH basketball games.

In fact, people have to be lucky to get a seat in Fertitta Center as tickets to watch the Cougars play have become a hot commodity all across the city of Houston.

Gone are the days of simply hoping to make the NCAA Tournament. Making a deep run in the Big Dance is now an expectation for UH every year.

“The expectations are now that the Cougars are going to show their colors,” Khator said. “And I call them my flying Cougars.”

All of UH’s recent successes and the development into one of the country’s premier basketball schools under Sampson stem back to guys like Robinson and Brooks, who went to play for a UH program that nobody wanted anything to do with because they believed in Sampson and his mission.

While these trailblazers that laid the foundation have been gone from the program for multiple years now, each one still feels an extreme sense of pride and joy in what the 2020-21 UH basketball team accomplished, and believes the Cougars will reach even higher heights in the years to come.

“My junior and senior year, every time we were brought into a huddle we’d say ‘Final Four on three. One, two, three Final Four,’” Robinson said.

“That was a goal of ours. Obviously, we came up short but to see (the 2020-21 UH basketball team) reach that goal is definitely surreal. It’s good to know that I played a part in them reaching that goal.”

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