Fred Faour: Astros fans, need something else to root for now? Try the UH basketball team

Houston Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson during the team’s 2022 NCAA Tournament run. The Cougars made it to the Elite Eight. (Courtesy Sean Thomas)

Fred Faour: Astros fans, need something else to root for now? Try the UH basketball team

So the Astros season is over. They took you on a magical ride that brought the entire city together. You are probably thinking, “now what?”

May we present the 2022-23 Houston Cougars basketball team? If you enjoyed the Astros, you will love Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars.

Like the Astros, they are gritty. They find ways to win. They rely on different players every game. And like the Astros, all they do is stack up victories. We are still early in the season, but this team has a legitimate chance to win it all.

And like the Astros, they tore down everything and started over.

Mattress Mack asked me if this team was as good as Phi Slama Jama Cougars. The reality is no. There is not a team in basketball that matches them. They were an all-time great team. But the beauty of the tournament is one bad game can end everything.

It happened to the current Coogs last year when they played their worst game of the season in the Elite Eight against Villanova.

There was a time when UH was one of the best programs in college basketball. Hall of Fame coach Guy V. Lewis led them to 14 NCAA Tournaments, five Final Fours, and back-to-back losses in the championship game, including the devastating 1983 loss. Growing up, I was close to those teams. My dad would take me to the locker room after every game. The 1983 team was my favorite to ever play. It was not just future Hall of Famers Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler; it was Larry “Mr. Mean” Micheaux. The steady Michael Young. And Alvin Franklin, the unflappable guard who was a year ahead of me at La Marque High School, where I watched him dominate night after night. When he missed a key free throw in the game against N.C. State, I was devastated. In an alternate universe, Benny Anders, who came inches away from a steal on the last play, gets the ball, dunks it, and game over. But that did not happen.

I always thought they would make it back, and they did the next year, but they lost to Georgetown. Like with these Astros, I took it for granted just how good they were.

Pat Foster would follow Lewis with a decent run, with three tournament appearances in seven years.

Then the equivalent of the 100-loss Astros seasons started. Through Alvin Brooks, Clyde Drexler, Ray McCallum, Tom Penders…The Cougars would not make it back to the tournament for 17 years after Foster, a one-and-done under Penders after an upset run in the conference tournament. Then four unremarkable years under James Dickey.

In 2014, UH hired Sampson away from the Rockets, where he had been exiled from college basketball for a ridiculous violation. After a 13-19 first season, Sampson got the Cougars back on track to the glory days.

In year two, he went 22-10 and made the NIT. The following year he also made the NIT with a 21-11 record. The stage was now set for four straight NCAA appearances (it would have been five if not for COVID), including a Sweet 16, an Elite 8, and a Final Four.

This year’s team might be his best yet.

And they will get better. The traits of a Kelvin Sampson team? They improve as the season goes on. Sampson coaches them up constantly. And his program – like the Astros – is a family affair. His son, Kellen Sampson, is coach in waiting. His daughter, Lauren, is director of basketball operations.

And his players buy-in. His recruiting has improved every year, but Sampson does not need all five stars. He needs players who will play Sampson ball. Strong defense. Rebound. Dive for loose balls. Even when they are not scoring, they create offense off their defense.

They are a joy to watch, much like the Astros.

Think of Marcus Sasser as Jose Altuve. Sasser is a preseason All-American and a tremendous shooter. Super freshman Jarace Walker is in the role of Jeremy Pena, the exciting newcomer. Tramon Marks as Alex Bregman, the steady star. Another upcoming freshman, Terrance Arceneaux, could be the next Kyle Tucker.

By the end of the season? Who knows who else will step up? Because that’s what these Cougars do, just like the Astros.

At the center of it all? Kelvin Sampson, the Dusty Baker of the Cougars. The steady hand who has accomplished everything but winning the last game of the season.

The stars are aligned for a special year. The Final Four is in Houston. Like the Astros, this feels like a special season.

Astros fans jump on the bandwagon. There is plenty of room.

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