Defense, rebounding, culture plays: the emphasis for Houston Cougars Kelvin Sampson early in the season

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Kevin M Cox/AP/Shutterstock (13642829f) Houston guard Tramon Mark dives for a loose ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Norfolk State, in Houston Norfolk St Basketball, Houston, United States – 29 Nov 2022

Defense, rebounding, culture plays: the emphasis for Houston Cougars Kelvin Sampson early in the season

No. 1 ranked Houston Cougars men’s basketball brought an offensive onslaught against Norfolk State on Tuesday night, but early in the season, UH’s strength and identity have been on the defensive side of the ball.

Houston ranks among the top in the country in various defensive categories, which is not a coincidence. The Cougars, led by head coach Kelvin Sampson, have prioritized that side of the ball above everything else to start the season, he said postgame on Tuesday. It is an emphasis Sampson always believes in starting with year in and year out.

“We are not playing January basketball yet,” Sampson said. “One of the reasons why our team gets better as we go is we start working on everything eventually. I want to be good on defense first. I want to be good at rebounding first. That’s what we hang our hat on around here. Once I think we at least have an idea of what we are doing, then we start adding things to it.”

Through seven games, Houston is holding opponents to just 48 points per contest on 30.03% shooting from the field. Both categories are the best mark in all of college basketball. The Cougars are also second in the country in Ken Pom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, which adjusts points allowed per 100 possessions. Only Tennessee has a higher rating.

When it comes to rebounding, Houston is 17th in the nation in boards per game. It averages 42.14 total rebounds per contest. The Cougars are tied for 14th in the country in offensive rebounding at 14.14 offensive boards a game. UH falls to 65th in the nation on the defensive glass, averaging 28 defensive rebounds per outing.

It is something that will not go unnoticed by Houston’s staff. Following the Cougars’ dominant win against Norfolk State, Sampson spoke highly of guard Marcus Sasser’s shooting performance, but he also pointed out how he had no defensive rebounds against the Spartans.

Sampson’s philosophy is simple. If you work on 10 different things all at once, then you end up being good at none of them, he said. It is why he hones in on defense, rebounding, and culture plays.

“We work on defense,” Sampson said. “We work on rebounding. We work on culture stuff, and we are really good at that early. Offensively, we get better as we go.”

Culture is a word the Houston program mentions from the top down. The Cougars pride themselves on being the toughest team on the court each and every night, hounding opponents defensively, diving on the floor first, and keeping opponents off the glass.

Against Norfolk State, there was a play in the first half that was a visual of the team’s culture. Sasser poked the ball loose from the Spartans, Reggie Chaney and Tramon Mark hit the floor chasing after it, and J’Wan Roberts finished the play with a slam.

The string of events energized the Fertitta Center, but for Houston, it was business as usual.

“I see that every day,” Sampson said. “That is our culture. It couldn’t have been scripted better. Great hustle play, an unselfish play, and a finish. That is the way that we practice, getting on the floor.”

Houston’s elite play on defense and ability to rebound is one of the reasons why the Cougars have been in almost every game they play over the past few years.

Going back to Saturday night against Kent State, despite struggling tremendously on offense against the Golden Flashes, the Cougars were able to pull out the win because UH defended them and forced Kent State into an even worse shooting night.

Defense, rebounding, and culture plays. It is a time-tested formula for the Houston head coach.

“We’ve been doing [culture plays] for a long time around here,” Sampson said. “It didn’t start this year or last year. We’ve been doing that for a long time.”

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