On Tuesday night, the 2021 Final Four banner will be unveiled in Fertitta Center to commemorate the Houston men’s basketball program’s historic 2020-21 season.
While memories of that season will always remain with UH head coach Kelvin Sampson, last year’s success and trying to repeat that success has not even crossed Sampson’s mind.
In fact, Sampson never mentions what the team did last year to those within the program. And neither do any of the players from the Final Four team that are on the 2021-22 UH roster.
“That accomplishment, that’s so far in the rearview mirror for us,” Sampson said. “Those are just memories for one day down the road. It doesn’t really apply to me or the team for this year.”
Instead, Sampson’s mind is focused on the 2021-22 Cougars, a team that features many new faces, becoming the best version of themselves that they can possibly be.
“The most important team that I’ve coached since I’ve been here will be this team,” Sampson said. “That’s all that matters to me.”
Practice, practice and more practice
While Sampson has been approached countless times by students and fans saying how they can’t wait to go back to the Final Four this year, the 66-year-old coaching veteran knows that very few collegiate basketball programs ever make it to consecutive Final Fours.
So instead of focusing on trying to repeat the success of what UH accomplished last season, Sampson’s primary focus is the growth of a team that is relatively young and full of guys that have not spent much time playing together before this year.
“The key now is growth,” Sampson said. “We just got to keep growing.”
Growth for UH starts in practice, which both former and current UH players have described as all-out war.
Just because what happens in practice does not show up on UH’s official win-loss record, the standards in practice are still the same as they are in an actual game.
Excellence is the goal in everything the Cougars do, no matter how big or small something may seem.
Every little detail from securing the boards through the famous bubble drill to being the first to dive to the floor after a loose ball is addressed in practice so that it translates when the lights are turned on and people are watching.
Without the intensity and attention to detail demanded at each and every practice, Sampson knows the program would be no where near attaining the amount of success it has had in recent years.
“What I care about is the stuff that you guys don’t want me to say which is practice today,” Sampson said. “I don’t care about anything else.”
No comparisons to previous teams
While the core values of the UH men’s basketball program, consisting of family, culture and effort just to name a few, remain constant, Sampson sees no benefit in comparing the 2021-22 Cougars to any other team he has coached while at UH.
Sampson is a firm believer that nothing good can come from comparison.
“This (2021-22 UH ) team should not be compared to any other team,” Sampson said. “The biggest thief to joy sometimes is comparison. I want this team to run their own race, find their own joy, be who they are and grow from their mistakes their way.”
Sampson said this year’s team is nowhere near where the Final Four team was at this point last year. But he is OK with that because last year’s team was full of veterans who had been around the program a while while the 2021-22 Cougars roster only consists of four players who have played significant minutes for UH.
Sampson knows the 2021-22 season will be a growing process, full of highs and lows, that requires time.
While he is unsure of how high the ceiling is for the Cougars this season, Sampson is confident that his team will get a bit better each and every time they take the court.
“We need to play games,” Sampson said. “I think we’ll improve every time we come out of the locker room and go on the court. We’re going to get a little bit better each game.”
With two American Athletic Conference regular season championships, an AAC Tournament championship and three straight NCAA Tournament berths, culminating with a 2021 Final Four appearance, under the UH men’s basketball program since 2017, it can be easy for the Cougars to be content with their past.
While all these accomplishments are great to Sampson and should not be taken for granted, there is still much more for the Cougars to accomplish in the eyes of their coach.
“Our program is good. We have a really good program but sometimes the enemy of great is good,” Sampson said. “I don’t want to settle. I want to get to that next step.”
Sampson and his staff want to get the most out of the talent on the team and are always preaching how it is never alright just to settle for good. There is always another step on the ladder, a higher peak that can be reached and Sampson will do whatever it takes to get his team to take that step to the next level.
“I really like this team … but I’m not going to let them settle,” Sampson said. “I don’t believe in mediocrity.”
For Sampson, the 2021-22 season will not be defined by the Cougars record, whether they win a conference championship, how far they go in the NCAA Tournament or any other things that people typically use to judge a team’s success.
Instead, it’s about getting building a tight bond with each other, learning and growing through mistakes and getting better and better each day so that by the time that March comes around the Cougars will be playing at their highest level of basketball and can look back with confidence, knowing they gave everything they had to this team.
“We’re going to run our race. We’re going to run it our way,” Sampson said. “When it comes time to get to the finish line, I want us to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.”