Men's Basketball Sports

In tournament full of chaos, Kelvin Sampson has built UH to succeed

UH has won 12 NCAA Tournament games under head coach Kelvin Sampson since the 2017-18 season. | Anh Le/The Cougar

UH has won 12 NCAA Tournament games under head coach Kelvin Sampson since the 2017-18 season. | Anh Le/The Cougar

Nothing is certain in the NCAA Tournament.

What was thought to be impossible — a 16-seed beating a 1-seed — has now happened twice in five years.

In 2018, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County took down Virginia, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, in blowout fashion.

In the first round of this year’s tournament, David slayed Goliath once again, literally.

Fairleigh Dickinson, the smallest team heightwise in all of Division I college basketball, knocked out the East Region’s No. 1 seed Purdue, a team led by 7-foot-4-inch National Player of the Year favorite Zach Edey.

The Madness didn’t stop there.

Princeton stunned No. 2 Arizona in the first round and then routed 7-seed Missouri two days later to make it three straight years in which a 15-seed has advanced to the Sweet 16. Oral Roberts did it in 2021 and Saint Peter’s did it in 2022.

Furman, a 13-seed, did the same thing to No. 4 Virginia, who was ranked as high as second in the AP poll during the regular season, sending the Cavaliers home on a last-second 3-pointer.

Chaos is the name of the game in March, yet UH has found consistency in a tournament that breeds upsets.

Take a look at how UH played in the second half of its first game against Northern Kentucky without Marcus Sasser, UH’s All-American guard and leading scorer.

It was ugly, but the Cougars found a way to win.

The Cougars did so again after going into halftime down 10 to Auburn inside a hostile Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama.

UH held Auburn to just 16.67 percent shooting in the second half and Tramon Mark caught fire as the Cougars outscored the Tigers by 27 over the game’s final 20 minutes.

Sure, it takes a little luck to advance in the Big Dance. But advancing to the Sweet 16 four consecutive times is no coincidence.

“It’s the culture,” said UH point guard Jamal Shead. “The guys before engraved it in us and we just continue to do it.”

Kelvin Sampson has built UH, a program that hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1984 when he took it over in 2014, into a juggernaut not only in the regular season but one equipped to handle the pressure of March.

“We’re built for adversity,” Sampson said. “Look where we were in 2014. What’s adversity?”

Before Sampson arrived at UH, the Cougars had three 30-plus win seasons in program history. UH has won 30 or more games in three of the past five seasons. With a win over Miami in the Sweet 16, UH would set the new program record for wins with 34, breaking the program’s current best 33-win season in 2018-19.

Nearly a third of UH’s NCAA Tournament wins in its program’s history have come under Sampson over the past six seasons.

Reggie Chaney is a perfect example of UH’s NCAA Tournament success under Sampson. Transferring from Arkansas to UH in 2020, Chaney’s first two seasons as a Cougar ended in trips to the Final Four and the Elite Eight.

“Since I’ve been here, (winning) is all I’ve known,” Chaney said. “That’s just coming from the backbones of the players that have been here before me.”

Each year, UH is told that it’s overrated because it plays in the American Athletic Conference and not one of the power conferences.

But the Cougars’ success in March says otherwise.

Sweet 16.

Final Four.

Elite Eight.

This year?

Sweet 16 and still dancing.

Blue-blood North Carolina, who began the season ranked No. 1, didn’t even make the tournament. 

Duke and Kentucky, two of the other historically successful programs in college basketball, didn’t make it out of the first weekend of the tournament. 

Kansas, the reigning national champion and No. 1 seed in the West Region, got bounced in the round of 32.

But the team coached by Kelvin Sampson is still dancing and two wins from playing in the Final Four just a few miles from Fertitta Center, the place it calls home.

“A lot of people were pushing for us to lose because we’re a one-seed,” Mark said after the win over Auburn. “They don’t believe we’re a real one seed because of the conference we play in. But I think we’re one of the best teams in the country still, and we proved it.” 

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