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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Men's Basketball

UH won’t change after claiming top spot, Kelvin Sampson says


UH claimed the top spot in the AP Poll, giving Kelvin Sampson his first No. 1 ranking in his 34-year head coaching career. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

UH claimed the top spot in the AP Poll, giving Kelvin Sampson his first No. 1 ranking in his 34-year head coaching career. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

Kelvin Sampson has rarely paid any mind to his team’s ranking, but things were different on Monday when his daughter, basketball operations director Lauren Sampson, delivered him news that he had never heard in his 34 years as a college head coach.

“Lauren said, ‘We’re No. 1,’ and she came and gave me a high-five,” Sampson said. “She said, ‘That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that is pretty cool.’”

Knowing the potential to occupy the top ranking after Saturday’s win over Kent State, Sampson’s first inclination was not to think about his current team, but rather the past. 

Thoughts of the previous eight groups he coached at UH that helped build the program into a national brand came to the front of Sampson’s mind.

“I just remember where we were in 2014, 2015,” Sampson said. “I’m happy for all the guys that came before us.”

After it became official, his mind drifted to the UH fan base.

The old Hofheinz Pavillion was nearly empty when he first arrived at UH, but the building has since transformed into the oft-packed Fertitta Center.

“I’m really happy for our fan base,” Sampson said. “They’ve been through some tough decades with our basketball program.”

Sampson acknowledged the Cougar Brass, UH’s band that leads the charge at every home game, the cheerleaders and the Cougar Dolls for creating what he describes as one of the best home-court advantages in college basketball.

A connection between the team and its fans, severed after the Phi Slama Jama days faded, has been finally reestablished.

This was the goal all along.

“When we run out of that tunnel, there’s a great marriage going on now. There’s a connection,” Sampson said. “Our fans appreciate our kids’ effort.”

’Work in progress’

While Sampson acknowledges the significance of the Cougars reaching the top spot in the country for the first time since the end of the 1982-83 season, having No. 1 in front of the program’s name doesn’t change anything about the way the Cougars move forward.

In fact, if it was up to Sampson to determine the rankings then there would be multiple teams ahead of the Cougars.

“There’s other teams that are probably more worthy (of the No. 1 spot) because of the way they’re playing,” Sampson said. “I certainly don’t think we’re the best team in the nation because I think we’re a work in progress.”

Sampson won’t allow his team to dwell on the No. 1 ranking, knowing it could be taken away at any moment.

“Remember, it’s a rental,” Sampson said. “We don’t own it. We’re just renting it because somebody else is going to be No. 1.”

Instead of the poll results, the focus will be on UH’s 23 turnovers against Kent State and how it can correct the other aspects of the game that Sampson believes his team needs to improve.

“As far as we’re concerned, we’ve got so many things we got to fix and get better at,” Sampson said. “That will be our focus.”

Still climbing

Sampson has always used the metaphor of each season being like climbing a mountain, and even though UH is atop the college basketball landscape at the moment, it still applies.

Now is not the time to get complacent, Sampson believes. The Cougars’ journey up the mountain has just begun, and there is a long way to go before they reach the peak.

As a veteran of the game, Sampson knows that each opponent brings a little something extra when playing the top-ranked team in the country.

“I’ve been in that other locker room playing Arizona when they were No. 1, UCLA when they were No. 1, Kansas when they were No. 1,” Sampson said. “Of the two, it’s much easier to be in that other locker room before the game. I’d much rather be the team getting ready to play the one-seed.”

While the No. 1 will sit in front of UH’s name, at least through this week, the program’s identity characterized by effort, rebounding and defense will not change.

Sampson knows that the Cougar culture — not how the outside views the program — will be what powers UH further up the mountain.

“The No. 1 thing is not going change us because it’s not going to change me,” Sampson said. “The coach sets the tone. Always.”

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