Building the foundation: Inside a UH basketball summer
For the UH men’s basketball team to perennially be among the nation’s best defenses and ferocious rebounding squads, it requires its players to be better conditioned mentally and physically than anyone else.
That toughness that lines the entirety of the Cougars’ team culture comes from a mix of the famously hard coaching of head coach Kelvin Sampson and the team’s ability to recruit and develop players with the correct work ethic and personalities. But every season, the trademark grit that the Cougars play with begins growing during summer workouts.
“You can’t overemphasize the importance of June,” said assistant coach K.C. Beard, “because it’s the foundation of the culture. And if you were to see in any organization, I think the cracks would come at the implementation stage and when the new guys come in, so that’s our responsibility.”
For four days a week for eight weeks, the team goes through a gauntlet of strength, conditioning and on-court workouts designed to push the players to their limits. These workouts help build the hard-nosed, disciplined culture that is expected from every member of the UH basketball program.
“It’s an indoctrination of Cougar basketball,” said assistant coach Kellen Sampson. “There’s a ton of system installation. But maybe more importantly, there’s way more culture installation.”
Each day begins around 6:30 a.m. with a team workout that ranges from hill sprints to strongman exercises, to special myofascial stretching sessions designed to improve joint mobility and posture. After that, players splinter off between the court and the weight room to do more individual and positional work.
For the first three days of the week, Kelvin Sampson takes a backseat in running things and instead allows his son, Kellen, and associate head coach Quannas White to take control of practices and workouts. On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, the pair of coaches drills the team on its offensive and defensive concepts, honing the players’ skills as well as their own as coaches.
“It powers our voice,” said Kellen Sampson, who recently signed a contract that further set in stone his position as head coach-in-waiting. “I’ve installed and implemented thoughts and ideas and figured out what works, what doesn’t work. How to connect and how to relate.”
Those first three days are all done with eyes towards the upcoming intensity of Friday — Kelvin’s day.
“During the week, in some ways it is a dress rehearsal,” Beard said. “So now what they’ve been practicing all week, they get a chance to execute in front of Coach. And he’s going to give them the critique, he’s going to push them, he’s going to challenge them.”
“Adversity is not something that always crops up,” Kelvin said of summer workouts. “And sometimes you have to create the adversity. I’ve always been pretty good at that.”
Though the summer challenges the entire team to get in shape for the season, the freshmen get it the worst as they are given no grace in their crash course in Cougar basketball.
“Imagine the most physically demanding, mentally exhausting, most challenging day you’ve ever had in high school,” said director of men’s basketball sports performance Alan Bishop. “That’s so far below the easiest day you’re ever going to have here.”
The early morning alarms, the non-stop conditioning and the complete lack of tolerance for anything except 100% effort is a terribly rude awakening for even the toughest of fresh high school graduates. No matter how tired or banged up you may be, you need to give it your all in every rep.
“Everybody’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, the first day,” said the younger Sampson. “but when the monotony and the grind set in. Every day we’re gonna hit the rock, even on the days that you’re sore, on the days that you’re tired… that’s when the shell shock kicks in.”
Redshirt senior forward J’Wan Roberts remembers his first summer in 2019 as one full of struggles as he labored to keep up with a team full of tough veterans.
“It was different, definitely,” Roberts said. “We had guys like DeJon (Jerreau), Chris Harris, Brison Gresham. I was shorter than them, weaker than them. It was rough.”
Now, entering his fifth year at UH, Roberts, alongside senior guards Jamal Shead and Ryan Elvin, have taken up the mantle as leaders for the freshmen. After all, going through a brutal workout next to players with years of NCAA Tournament experience is a nice example to look up to.
“The very best thing, if you want to make a Final Four, is to have somebody who’s made a Final Four who shows you what that actually looks like,” Bishop said. ” I wanna have all these guys Jojo (freshman Joseph Tugler), I want to have him around J’Wan… I want to have them around Jamal.”
“Just trying to take a little bit off of coach Sampson’s shoulders and trying to be a second teacher,” Roberts said. “I’m trying to portray to the freshman that it ain’t easy. It’s a different ballgame from high school to college. Every day, you’ve got to bring it.”
Perhaps the most important fruit that grows from the blood, sweat and more sweat of a Cougar basketball summer is the cultivation of a tightly-knit squad.
Everyone, from the coaches and players all the way down to the student managers, waking up in the wee hours of the morning in order to work towards building a championship contender builds a bond that permeates the UH men’s basketball program.
“We’re all uncomfortable together, Nobody likes it when their alarm clock goes off at 5:10 in the morning,” Kellen said. “But this is all this is the buy-in that we all collectively as a program make towards accomplishing our goals and our dreams.”