Men's Basketball Sports

Inside UH’s sustained NCAA Tournament success under Kelvin Sampson

With the win over Illinois on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh, Kelvin Sampson has led UH to its third consecutive Sweet 16. | Courtesy of Rob Sandoval/UH athletics

With the win over Illinois on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh, Kelvin Sampson has led UH to its third consecutive Sweet 16. | Courtesy of Rob Sandoval/UH Athletics

Even at 66, Kelvin Sampson still knows how to have a little bit of fun. 

As soon as he entered the locker room after the Cougars punched their third straight ticket to the Sweet 16, Sampson ripped off his patented red Jordan polo, threw his arms in the air and began to dance — all while being doused in water by his team. 

His players were all smiles, loving every second of witnessing pure jubilation on the man who has transformed the UH men’s basketball program into force to be reckoned with.

“It was a good feeling seeing coach take his shirt off and dance,” said UH forward Reggie Chaney. “This is something we’ve been working towards all year and it’s a great feeling to just let it out.”

For Sampson, this moment was more than simply about reaching the Sweet 16. It was a celebration of all the things the injury-bitten, battle-scarred Cougars persevered through to reach a point every team in the country dreams of.

“We’ve had a lot of adversity with this group but they’ve never stopped believing,” Sampson said. “They’re extremely coachable, follow instructions. They’re a joy to coach so I’m really happy for them.”

One family

Everything starts with family within the UH program.

Sampson has built the program with his son, Kellen, and daughter, Lauren, beside him every step of the way. In the same way, everyone who enters inside the walls of the UH program forms a blood-like bond with each other, creating a family within a family atmosphere.

As a result, it transforms each player’s mindset because he is playing for something much bigger than themselves. They are playing for their brothers on the team and those that have come before them and laid the foundation for the Cougars’ success.

This understanding adds a little extra motivation every time UH takes the floor, especially come NCAA Tournament time as each player knows it could be the last time they take the floor with this particular group of guys.

“It’s our heart,” said UH point guard Jamal Shead. “We don’t want to lose and we want to win for each other. We love each other so much. These guys are really my brothers. This goes way beyond basketball. We don’t want to lose for each other. I don’t get this year back with Taze, with Josh, with Kyler, with Fabian. We just want to keep it going as long as we possibly can.”

Lose and reload

UH lost Brison Gresham, DeJon Jarreau, Justin Gorham and Quentin Grimes, four of the core guys that led the Cougars to the 2021 Final Four, over the offseason. Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, two UH guards, can be added to that group as neither has played since December due to injuries.

The year before, Nate Hinton and Chris Harris left. Going back even further, Armoni Brooks, Breaon Brady, Corey Davis and Galen Robinson moved on.

Even with losing so many key pieces every year, UH has not only still found a way to make the NCAA Tournament, but to also make deep runs in it. This is possible because of two words- Cougar culture.

Sampson and his staff are meticulous in who they recruit because the standard within the program are high and there are lots of demands in order to play for UH.

Sampson isn’t looking for the highest rated and most talented kids on paper when he recruits. In fact, Sampson said people would be suprised with some of the big name players UH has turned down over the years earlier in the season.

But the UH program isn’t looking to build a team full of big names or superstars. It is looking to build a roster of guys who fit the Cougar culture and fully buy in to the vision of the program.

“Our kids really believe in the culture that we’ve created here over the years,” Sampson said. “We’ve lost four starters every year for so long it just seems natural that we have a brand new team this year.”

While playing for Sampson requires a different kind of toughness than playing for most other programs across the country, each player that enters the UH program fully embraces it because it results in a lot of winning.

“(Sampson) just wants it for all of us,” said graduate guard Taze Moore. “All the coaching staff, they want it for all of us. They know who they are recruiting. They know what we can do and they just try to pull it out of us every day in practice, in the film room and even at 7 a.m. when we have to go through walk-throughs.”

Culture plays

UH has never been a great shooting team under Sampson but it still finds ways to consistently win because its players are always embracing the pillars of the Cougar culture: Defense. Rebounding. Making the hustle plays.

“There’s a lot of ways to impact winning other than making a basket,” Sampson said. “That describes our team in a nutshell.”

Within the UH program, things like being the first one on the floor after a loose ball, crashing the glass hard for an offensive rebound and sacrificing your body to take a charge are defined as culture plays.

These are the plays that electrify the Cougars, filling the team with energy whenever one of these culture plays is made.

“Whenever we watch film we do edits,” Sampson said. We always end our edits of our film sessions with culture plays. And everybody wants to be on the edits.”

This has been Sampson’s secret sauce for success since he arrived at UH and the results speak for themselves — three American Athletic Conference regular-season championships, two conference tournament titles and four NCAA Tournament appearances, including three trips to the Sweet 16 and beyond.

While the UH roster looks different each season, the culture remains steadfast.

“We got a brand new bunch but the culture never changes,” Sampson said. “Because they’re great kids and they’re high character kids they buy in. It’s never about them. Our program is always about we and us and that’s what happens when you have great kids.”

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