Jamal Shead’s sophomore shine and impact on UH men’s basketball
With no foresight on what would become of the 2021-22 UH men’s basketball team, sophomore guard Jamal Shead became a highlight and key piece to the Cougars’ success this last year.
The Cougars finished the season with a 32-6 overall record, were crowned American Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament champions and capped the year off with an Elite Eight run.
Shead, a role player off the bench during his freshman season, started 31 games with most at point guard after starting junior guard Marcus Sasser was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a toe injury that required surgery on his left foot.
However, the setback for the Cougars became an opportunity for Shead to step up and put his game on full display.
“Coach [Kelvin Sampson] always preaches to be ready and have that next up mentality,” Shead said. “In that moment, that’s what I was. I was ready to step up into my role.”
The Manor native arrived on Sampson’s squad as a stellar player defensively, yet Shead lacked the offensive skillset to gain more playing time his freshman season.
After one season in the books, the 6-foot-1-inch guard addressed his game in the offseason before his sophomore shine.
“You know just staying in the gym,” Shead said about his offseason preparation. “Getting countless reps up, countless shots up. That’s all basketball really is. Just got to rep up what you’re doing and get really good at what you do. You know, just not turn the ball over, become a better ball handler, just things like that.”
Shead’s improvement during his freshman year and offseason can be attributed to the Cougars’ hard-working practices including a talented guard group in former UH players DeJon Jarreau, Quentin Grimes and Sasser.
“I would say my offense got better and it mainly was because I got to practice against the number one defense every day in practice you know,” Shead said about his development. “Those guys made me tremendously better, and I tried to do the same thing with them.”
Throughout the season, Shead produced impressive performances in the absence of Sasser, often taking control of the game and running possessions to his best ability.
With a depleted roster and lack of depth after Sasser and sophomore guard Tramon Mark were ruled out for the rest of the season, the Cougars were well overlooked come tournament time, often falling on the upset radar for the opening rounds.
“Everybody counted us out, but we just stayed together,” Shead said. “We didn’t focus on the media and the fans because you know, when you lose, a lot of people have a lot to say but when you win it’s still the same way so it doesn’t really affect us so we just tried to stay together.”
Shead averaged 15.0 points in four games during UH’s Elite Eight run in the NCAA Tournament.
A year before then, Shead saw a combined 14 minutes through three games coming off the bench during the Cougars’ run to the Final Four.
His improvement through one year proved true for the Cougars in the NCAA Tournament as his impact was crucial in all games.
“Yeah you know, it’s a dream come true,” Shead said about playing meaningful minutes in the NCAA Tournament. “I believed in myself and if you just believe in your work, it can come true. That work just paid off and I was blessed and fortunate to be in that position.”
Heading into his junior season with two years of experience at UH under his belt, Shead now adds a leadership and veterans role to his baggage.
With Sasser declaring for the NBA draft and graduates Fabian White Jr., Josh Carlton, Kyler Edwards, and Taze Moore all moving on in their respective careers, Shead now becomes one of six players heading into their third year with the program.
The path is now open for Shead to help lead the new group coming in, but he trusts that the culture coach Sampson instilled in the program will also aid the players arriving and coming back.
“I’ve thought a lot about that, but you know our culture will be that for those younger guys just like it was for me,” Shead said. “You learn by just being around us every day. Everything that goes on, how hard we work, everything is just going to become natural just by being around us every day.”
His development from his first to the second year was notable, but Shead knows that there is still more work to be done.
Heading into this offseason, Shead still believes that he can improve in more ways in order to be the best product he can for the Cougars next season.
“I can be more consistent with my shooting,” Shead said about how he plans to improve for his junior season. “Like you said, I had a pretty good NCAA Tournament but before that, I wasn’t really shooting the ball well. I just got to be more consistent with my shooting and have less turnovers you know. I was pretty high in assist-to-turnover ratio, but I know I can do better.”
Shead’s mentality rings as true as the team philosophy to stay the course, stick together, play hard and win games, all while proving the doubters wrong along the way.
“Every year somebody leaves, every year something happens where a lot of people count Houston out, and we’ve done a good job of just proving them wrong every time, so that’s just what I’m most looking forward to,” Shead said.
The offseason is still too fresh to determine what the 2022-23 UH men’s basketball team will look like with transfers and recruits coming in next season, but expectations will be high for coach Sampson and the Cougars after four consecutive Sweet 16 appearances and back-to-back runs to the Elite Eight.
Personal development matters to Shead as much as every other player on the team, but his main goal is to earn another opportunity to showcase his skills and play in high-level games alongside his teammates.
“Honestly, I’m just looking forward to getting the chance to show the world what we can do again,” Shead said.