For No. 1 Houston Cougars, the matchup against North Florida was an investment in the future

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Kevin M Cox/AP/Shutterstock (13652827c) Houston forward Jarace Walker (25) defends North Florida forward Carter Hendricksen during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, in Houston North Florida Basketball, Houston, United States – 06 Dec 2022

For No. 1 Houston Cougars, the matchup against North Florida was an investment in the future

No. 1 Houston Cougars men’s basketball had an opportunity to shake things up a bit on Tuesday against North Florida in its 76-42 win.

A nasty cut just above guard Marcus Sasser’s left eyebrow forced the Dallas native to get five stitches on the lesion and not return to the contest. While he is expected to be fine going forward, UH got a chance to put a lot of different lineup combinations on the floor.

One of the biggest reasons why Houston (9-0) had the luxury of trying out multiple lineups was because of its suffocating close to the first half against the Ospreys. The Cougars held them scoreless for the final 8:27 of the period, which resulted in a 14-0 run that helped UH build a 24-point cushion at the break.

With 12:45 remaining in the second half, head coach Kelvin Sampson pulled his point guard Jamal Shead out of the game and told him he was not going to get back in.

“’Emanuel needs to play. Terrance needs to play,’” Sampson told Shead when he took him out. “I think the guy I was most pleased with was Jarace [Walker]. He played hard. He’s a freshman. He looks exactly how all of our freshmen looked when they were freshmen.”

Shead ended the game with 10 assists, four rebounds, four steals, one block, and zero turnovers. Walker had his first collegiate career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and Sampson got to mix and match a lot of lineups.

Some included guard Tramon Mark as the lead playmaker. Others saw big men Reggie Chaney and Ja’Vier Francis on the court together, and one lineup even had all three freshmen — Walker, Arceneaux, and Sharp — together on the floor at the same time.

“Anytime I get Emanuel minutes like tonight, it is an investment in our future,” Sampson said. “These guys are our future. Ja’Vier, how many minutes did he play tonight? Nineteen. Emanuel got to play 19 … I saw a lot of positives tonight.”

Freshmen don’t usually play much for Houston, Sampson stated after the game. He added that they play, but not major minutes, because they know their time is coming. Houston’s freshmen have to learn to adapt to the Cougars’ culture first.

Sampson demands his players have a certain level of toughness and experience. Two seasons ago, Kentucky and Duke had two of the top recruiting classes in the country, but neither made the NCAA Tournament, the head coach said. The reason is that it is difficult to win with a group full of inexperienced kids, Sampson added, or as he put it, a team full of Jaraces. Talented, but inexperienced.

They need to learn through challenges, and as they get older, they become wiser to playing the game at the collegiate level.

“They go through all the trials and tribulations and wars and battles of getting your head beat in,” Sampson said. “Get beat up. Get knocked down, but you keep getting up. Jarace has been knocked down this year, but he’s kept getting up. I tell him to come to work every day.”

Sampson tells his freshmen to work hard each day, keep hitting the rock, and eventually, they will get to where the older guys are.

Francis is a prime example. The sophomore played sparingly in the 2021-22 season behind established veterans in Josh Carlton, Chaney, and Fabian White.

When Francis was not getting a lot of minutes on the floor, he knew his time would come, so he tried to learn as much as he could from Carlton and Chaney, Francis told reporters following Tuesday’s game. This season he has seen a more consistent rotation spot for Houston.

“I tried to implement that into what I am doing now and coach always stays on me every day,” Francis stated.

One of the key focuses for Houston is being patient and checking any ego at the door, Sampson said. The Cougars don’t tolerate any me-first mindsets.

“Our guys don’t have egos,” Sampson said. “We don’t deal with egos here. We coach them out of that. This isn’t an ego program. Other coaches probably have to put up with that stuff, but our ego is the team ego. Our ego comes from getting 50% of your misses and getting excited about that because we did it together.”

On Tuesday, Houston grabbed 17 offensive rebounds. It missed 34 shots. It does not matter who is on the floor, the expectation for Houston’s players is all the same, and it is nonnegotiable.

Sampson credited its culture for the team’s ability in getting players to commit to the Cougars’ way.

“That’s why you have culture,” Sampson said. “Programs that don’t have culture never have consistency because you’re basing it on something [where] players aren’t playing for each other. Our kids play for each other. They are excited for each other’s success, and they are very vocal about it.”

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