How UH basketball has shifted its focus after Mark and Sasser’s injuries
There was no hanging of heads. There was no feeling sorry for themselves. Instead, as the adversity piled up, the desire to win within the Houston men’s basketball program’s locker room grew stronger.
“I don’t think nobody else has a stronger belief system than us. Our coaches believe in us. We believe in ourselves,” said UH guard Taze Moore. “At the end of the day, we have an experienced group. We have an older group and we just know how to will ourselves and hold each other accountable to a point where we know what we want and we won’t let anybody take that from us.”
Nightmare before Christmas
Dec. 23, 2021 will always be known as “Black Thursday” to Kelvin Sampson after the events that transpired the day before.
Sophomore guard Tramon Mark, who was finding his groove before reaggravating a left shoulder injury in the first half of the Cougars mid-December matchup against Alabama, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery the morning of Dec. 22 to repair a torn labrum on both sides of his left shoulder.
Replacing Mark’s 10 points per game would not be an easy task but seemed manageable with the roster UH had.
That night in the Cougars’ final non-conference game against Texas State, things quickly turned from bad to worse.
Kyler Edwards left the game with an apparent ankle injury.
After the game, Marcus Sasser expressed that his left foot was bothering him.
Both Edwards and Sasser went to get MRIs. The next morning, all the bad news hit the UH program.
Edwards had suffered a Grade-2 ankle sprain and there was no timetable for his return.
Sasser, the Cougars leading scorer averaging 17.7 points per game, would miss the remainder of the 2021-22 season with a hairline fracture in the fifth metatarsal of his left foot that required surgery.
The dream of following up last year’s Final Four season with another deep NCAA Tournament run was quickly slipping away.
Sampson did not shy away from opening up about the challenges of navigating the remainder of the season without Mark and Sasser along with dealing with the team’s other injuries would be, describing his team as “walking wounded” and one injury away from Ryan Elvin, a walk-on, having to play 40 minutes a game.
“We’re walking a little bit of a tight rope here without any safety net under it,” Sampson said.
After finding out that the team would be without Mark and Sasser for the remainder of the season, Fabian White Jr., the longest-tenured Cougar in the program, sent a text to Taze Moore and Josh Carlton.
White knew that the role that Moore and Carlton, two college basketball veterans who transferred to UH over the offseason, needed to play for the team to win games had just increased tenfold.
Moore and Carlton, along with the rest of the team, embraced this challenge knowing that this UH team still had a chance to do something special even without two of its best players.
“The season wasn’t going to stop because Tramon (Mark) and Marcus (Sasser) can’t play,” Carlton said. “As much as we need them out there, there’s still games to play so we just knew we were going to have to find a way. There’s not much margin for error so we’re not going to be able to blow teams out like we were before but we still have to find a way to win a game.”
Edwards, who knows what it takes to win at the highest level from his time at Texas Tech which included a trip to the national championship in 2019, expressed the same message.
“At the end of the day, we’re still Houston,” Edwards said. “We still got the best culture in the country to me I think. It doesn’t matter who goes out or comes in, we’re still good.”
Feeding the frontcourt
While the injury bug had knocked out half of the UH guard group, the frontcourt, which Sampson called the best he’s had in all his years as the Cougars’ head coach, still stood strong.
“The good news is we have our front line,” Sampson said. “Josh Carlton, Reggie Chaney, Fabian White, J’Wan Roberts, all those guys are healthy, knock on wood, and ready to go.”
Both Carlton and White had proven they can score in the past but had not been called upon to put up a big offensive performance on a consistent basis when Sasser and Mark were on the court.
Sasser and Mark’s injuries changed this, as the Cougars needed to replace the nearly 30 points per game the UH guard duo combined to average in the first two months of the season.
“It’s like watching TV. Sometimes you just got to change the channel,” Sampson said. “We played one way with Marcus and Tramon (but) we don’t have them anymore. Now we play a different way and we’re going to have to adjust again.”
Thus, the shift from running the offense through the guard group to making Carlton and White a feature focus of the offense was made.
This change in focus has paid dividends for the Cougars’ offense through the first few weeks of conference play as no team has had an answer for the UH bigs.
Carlton has looked like a man among boys in the paint, putting together a 30 point and 22 point double-double in two of UH’s first three games without Mark and Sasser.
White has been more aggressive looking for his shot offensively, including hitting 3-pointers on a consistent basis.
On top of that, Chaney and Roberts have brought toughness off the bench, bringing value on the boards and defensive end of the floor to complement the scoring of White and Carlton.
Cougar culture still alive and well
While injuries have completely changed the dynamics of the 2021-22 UH team, the staples of the program under Sampson have remained.
Someone in a Cougars uniform is still always the first guy on the floor diving after a loose ball. They still are reckless on the offensive boards, creating plenty of second chance opportunities every game. The stifling defense that has frustrated so many opponents and resulted in easy points off of turnovers for UH is alive and well.
“The thing that we’ve relied on to win games, we’ll still continue to do that,” Sampson said. “We’ll defend. We’ll rebound. We’re going to play hard. Our kids are going to continue to compete.”
Edwards returned from his Grade-2 ankle sprain two weeks after suffering the injury despite being told he would miss four to six weeks in the initial injury diagnosis because he could not stand.
Freshman guard Ramon Walker, who Sampson said was likely to be redshirted at the start of the season, has been called upon to play big minutes for a Cougars.
As a true freshman thrust into action, Walker has delivered in big ways for the Cougars whether it be hitting a timely shot or taking a charge, providing a much-needed and unforeseen boost to a crippled UH guard group.
Sampson could not be more pleased with what he’s seen from his team in the first few weeks without Mark and Sasser, calling his guys a group of “fighters.”
“I’m just proud of our ability to stay together,” Sampson said. “You get knocked down. Isn’t that what life is about? But you’ve got to get up.”
Aiming for the ceiling
While the Cougars have handled the punches thrown at them in the early stages of conference play, Sampson acknowledges that the road ahead will be an uphill battle with plenty of roadblocks along the way.
He also knows that UH’s peak is not what it was when the season started now that Mark and Sasser won’t return.
Even with all the unknowns, the 66-year old coaching veteran is excited for the challenge ahead and has one goal in mind — to get the most out of the guys he has each and every time the Cougars take the court.
“We got some things we need to tighten up, some areas we need to add, but I’m excited about where I think this team can be,” Sampson said. “Now we don’t have the ceiling we had before (with Mark and Sasser), but we do have a ceiling. We’re going to try to hit that ceiling. Be as good as we can be. However good that is, we’ll find out.”