Men's Basketball Sports

Heart, soul and brotherhood: Cougars process tourney exit

The Houston Cougars leaned on their culture of resilience and brotherhood with one another all season amidst constant trials. | Anh Le/The Cougar

The 2023-24 Houston Cougars will be remembered as a team defined by resilience.

First it was sophomore forward Terrance Arceneaux, who went down with a season-ending Achilles injury in December. Then it was junior guard Ramon Walker. He went down in February. In early March, freshman forward Joseph Tugler suffered a season-ending foot injury.

Injuries haunted this Houston team, and even though Walker surprisingly returned in time for the NCAA Tournament it continued to feel as though the Cougars simply could not stay healthy. Few knew this better than senior forward J’Wan Roberts, who fought through a knee and hand injury simultaneously through the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments.

The Cougars were tested through and through this season, given no choice but to become one of the country’s toughest teams. That toughness stretched beyond just injuries in the Round of 32 against Texas A&M, where so many Cougars fouled out that senior guard Ryan Elvin had to enter the game in overtime to seal Houston’s ticket to the Sweet Sixteen.

But the Sweet Sixteen had a curveball unlike any other. Just 14 minutes into UH’s matchup with No. 4 Duke, Houston’s All-American senior guard Jamal Shead fell to the ground in pain, holding his ankle.

Shead would not return to the game, but the Cougars did not know that in the moment. UH was leading the Blue Devils when Shead exited to the locker room and his teammates felt confident that, despite losing their floor general, they could keep things going their way.

“We went into halftime down by one,” Cryer said. “We felt like it was only a matter of hitting some shots because we were playing great defense. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we could win the game.”

It became about belief for Houston, something head coach Kelvin Sampson said came naturally to this group of players.

“That was a really tough locker room at halftime,” Sampson said. “It didn’t take a lot to convince those kids that we could still win. That’s just kind of what we’ve done all year.”

Houston’s many tests this year prepared them for virtually any obstacle, any loss. Those tests also instilled belief in the group, the unquestionable first step in overcoming those obstacles.

But losing Jamal Shead was not just any obstacle. For Houston, it was the nightmare scenario.

“I doubt any team in America has a player, except maybe (Zach) Edey from Purdue, means as much to their team as Jamal means to this team,” Sampson said. “We don’t have another Jamal.”

Senior guard Mylik Wilson did his best to fill in as UH’s point guard in Shead’s absence, but Houston struggled to string together any sort of momentum on the offensive end. Senior guard LJ Cryer picked up the bulk of the scoring load, but the group had lost the man crowned as “the heart of the team” by its head coach.

The Cougars’ belief in themselves, their coach and one another kept them competing until the very last possession. When sophomore guard Emanuel Sharp’s shot fell no good, it was shock, it was heartbreak and it was pain that permeated from the expressions on UH’s faces.

“They fought,” Shead said of his teammates. “That’s a really good team on the other side. We were down three crucial guys, myself included. They fought, bro.”

Sampson categorized the ending as unfair, saying it did not “feel like a fair fight.” In the locker room there was no bitterness between these teammates. There was love, appreciation and disbelief that a squad so bonded to one another had its season end in such a way.

“I think we played good tonight and we had a chance to win at the end,” Wilson said. “We made a few mistakes but I felt good with our overall performance … I feel like if we had Jamal we definitely would have been going to the Final Four.”

The headlines will be about Shead’s injury, and this year’s Houston team will forever be tied to “what-ifs” about what could have been had the All-American never landed awkwardly on his ankle that night in Dallas. As Sampson has said, Shead was the heart of the Houston Cougars.

Beyond the heart though, there are more parts that make someone human. Namely there is the soul, and as the Cougars’ vocal leader was forced to watch from the bench, it was Houston’s soul that rose to the occasion.

“Jamal gets a lot of the credit as he should,” Sampson said on Thursday. “But J’Wan (Roberts) doesn’t get near enough credit. J’Wan is also a leader.”

Sampson’s words on the eve of Friday’s game come across prophetic in retrospect. When Cryer’s shooting alone was not enough to keep Houston in the game, Roberts took to working the paint with aggression and physicality. A 51% free throw shooter on the year, Roberts was never the one the Cougars would ideally want at the line, but the forward earned the “soul” moniker and proved why Sampson views him in such high regard.

“He stepped up to the plate,” Shead said. “He did what he was supposed to do, and he almost brought it home for us. It sucks. That guy works. He fought through injuries all year. We were so close.”

For Roberts, emotions ran high in the locker room. The forward sat hunched at his locker, jersey over his head, overcome with emotion and consoled by his teammates for several minutes before speaking to the media.

“We started this back in June,” Roberts said. “I love every single one of them. They’re like brothers to me. We never go a day without talking to each other.”

Other Cougars had similar words.

“This group of dudes that I’ve been with for a while like J’Wan and Jamal,” Elvin said. “They helped me grow as a person. They were with me through my toughest times … they’ve showed so much love to me, and are people I can call my brothers forever.”

Houston is an experienced team. It is unlikely many of its core pieces will be back in the fall even with extra years of eligibility. These Cougars will go in many separate directions, but it is the brotherhood built between the players that pulled Houston just moments away from the Elite Eight against all odds, fighting until the bitter, bitter end.

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