Culture 101: How the Houston Cougars freshmen are adapting to Kelvin Sampson’s program

Houston Cougars men’s basketball head coach Kelvin Sampson during his team’s NCAA March Madness run in the 2021-22 season. (Courtesy Sean Thomas)

Culture 101: How the Houston Cougars freshmen are adapting to Kelvin Sampson’s program

It has been over two weeks since the Houston Cougars men’s basketball team officially began its full practices ahead of the highly anticipated 2022-23 season.

As it is every year, there are new faces learning the program, and this season features three freshmen in Jarace Walker, Terrance Arceneaux and Emanuel Sharp. While there is a lot of excitement from Houston fans about all three rookies, head coach Kelvin Sampson said there is a long way to go before they are ready to impact winning.

“We got to wait for the freshmen to catch up,” Sampson said. “I don’t care how good the freshmen are. They get their doors blown out for three-to-four weeks.”

When Houston’s freshmen first join the team, they have a lot to learn and pick up, such as all of the Cougars’ terminology, Sampson said.

They are flooded in having to figure out what right means on a pick and roll coverage, what blue means in pick and roll coverage, what monster means and various other sayings, Sampson said. There are the physical expectations for each player too.

‘Flipped the switch’

When Arceneaux went through his first practice with Houston on Sept. 27, he thought he had started off pretty good, he said. The next thing he knew, Sampson flipped the switch on him. A switch he is still trying to adjust to, he added.

The biggest adjustment Arceneaux has needed to make is playing hard every possession, he said. A lot of things are different from when he was in high school, Arceneaux said. Sometimes in high school, he used to take plays off, not needing to crash the glass every time, the Beaumont native said. At Houston, he needs to be active on every play and use his length to his advantage, he said.

“Every time there is a loose ball, you got to dive on it,” Arceneaux said. “They want you to crash. You got to fight for an offensive board, so that’s really different for me. I’m still trying to get used to it.”

Staying sharp

Sharp has had a different perspective through the first weeks of UH practice. The Tampa, Florida, native has been around the program since the middle of last season when he joined Houston as an early enrollee.

Sharp did not see the floor as a redshirt, but what he was able to do was get to know the Houston culture and the team’s principles, especially the defensive ones, Sharp said.

“It gave me a head start on that, just being here, experiencing March Madness with them and going through all the practices throughout March,” Sharp said. “It showed me a lot of how things are supposed to go and how we are supposed to go about things during that time.”

Additionally, Sharp was able to focus on rehabbing his body and getting to a level to be prepared to compete. Sharp broke his leg and dislocated his ankle while in high school in the spring of 2021 prior to arriving at Houston.

He spent six weeks in bed being unable to put any weight on the injured foot, Sharp said. The rehab to recover from his injury was a slow process he had to embrace and involved a lot of physical therapy.

One reason he came to Houston early was to get in athletic shape under the supervision of Alan Bishop, Houston’s director of men’s basketball sports performance, he said. Sharp joined the program weighing 232 pounds. Several months later, he is now at 205 pounds, Sharp said.

Despite having the extra months of experience under his belt, however, the combo guard said he has still gone through an adjustment period. The biggest change he has had to get used to is adapting to the speed of the game and the defense, Sharp said.

“It’s all been a process just every day coming in and working hard and getting better as a team,” Sharp said. “The main thing we talk about is stacking days, stacking good days. That’s just the main part for everybody on this team, stacking good days back-to-back-to-back.”

Trust the process

For Walker, Houston’s first five-start recruit since 2012, Sampson’s early expectations for him are vastly different from what others may have. Not because he does not have the talent or potential, but because he has a lot to learn about playing at the collegiate level, and specifically for Houston, he said.

“If you think he is going to dominate, you have a misconception of him,” Sampson said. “He’s a freshman. Where he is starting is so much further behind than where Fabian (White) finished. Fabian is the winningest player in the history of this school.”

“Right now Jarace reminds me of a ball in a pinball machine. He’s just getting bounced all over the place, and it is hard. It is hard to come to the level of a program where we are at now and impact winning right away.”

Even after a dominant 83-36 over Northern Colorado, the freshmen on the team will continue to go through their growing pains. Eventually, it will click for all of them, the head coach said. It is a process.

It was the same for guard Ramon Walker a season ago when he was a freshman. It was the same for forward J’Wan Roberts when he joined the program in 2019. It was the same for every freshman that has gone through the Houston program, Sampson said.

“You just have to stay patient, keep working at it, and then eventually they are going to have their ‘aha’ moment,” Sampson said. “But, I haven’t seen a light at the end of the ‘aha’ tunnel yet.”

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