Mandatory Credit: Photo by LM Otero/AP/Shutterstock (13814419z) Houston guard Jamal Shead (1) looks for and opening against Memphis guard Alex Lomax (2) during the second half in the finals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament, in Fort Worth, Texas AAC Memphis Houston Basketball, Fort Worth, United States – 12 Mar 2023
FORT WORTH — Following the Houston Cougars basketball team’s loss to the Memphis Tigers in the American Athletic Conference Tournament championship game, the team quickly switched gears.
A few minutes after the final buzzer sounded, players, student managers, coaches, and media packed into a spacious room inside Dickies Arena. There were several chairs lined up in rows that faced one giant monitor, which had on the CBS broadcast.
While the players still had the sting of defeat on their minds, Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson told all of them to take out their cameras, remembered all his players have cellphones now, and told them to record and capture the moment.
“It’s a great memory for them because it’s a tremendous accomplishment,” Sampson said.
The NCAA Selection Show began with the announcement of the South Region, headlined by Alabama, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.
After a commercial break, the Midwest Region was unveiled next. The Houston Cougars quickly had their names called as the No. 1 seed in the region and the No. 2 seed overall in the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
When Houston’s logo appeared on the screen, all of Houston’s contingent erupted with glee. Players and staff clapped while others recorded the moment just like Sampson told them.
“I feel like we earned it,” Sasser told reporters after the game. “We got a good team. Really it’s tournament time where anything can happen. This is what we really prepare for all season. March Madness, so it is here now. We got to go out there and play like it is your last game because it might be.”
As Sampson watched the different teams get their name called, Southeast Missouri State stuck out to him. It brought the head coach back to his days at Washington State, where he first made the NCAA Tournament in the 1990s.
Sampson recalled how his team nearly knocked off Boston College in the first round. Boston College then went on to defeat North Carolina, the No. 1 seed in their region that season, in the second round. It is why the tournament is called March Madness, Sampson said.
As Houston begins its path in the NCAA Tournament, Sampson knows just getting a one seed is a massive accomplishment in itself.
“I’m proud of this team,” Sampson said. “It’s hard to make the tournament, but a lot of that comes from how far we’ve come with this program too. To be where we were in 2014 and now being a one-seed, it’s pretty cool. It’s a hell of an accomplishment. Proud of my team. Proud of our program.”
Houston will face off against Northern Kentucky on Thursday night at around 8:20 p.m. CT from Birmingham, Alabama. The game will air on TNT, with UH alum Jim Nantz on the call.
Sasser’s health going into the game will be the biggest question mark for the Cougars. The Dallas native told reporters after the game he has been going through a bunch of rehabbing and massages over the past 24 hours.
“I’m sure if I had told Marcus, ‘Marcus, you want to try to play today?’ [he would have played], but when we came back over to the arena, I knew in the back of my mind that he wasn’t going to play,” Sampson said.
The guard told reporters he felt a little pain when he went through warm-ups ahead of Sunday’s game, but he believes it will not be a long-term issue.
“I should be 100% by Thursday,” Sasser said.
For Sampson, the focus is on Northern Kentucky. The team actually caught Sampson’s eyes a few days ago when they played Cleveland State in the Horizon League Championship.
“I kept watching Northern Kentucky, and I just made a mental note thinking, boy, they’re really good,” Sampson said. “I remembered Cincinnati playing them earlier in the year. I think Jamal just said that they beat them by 13. So, that tells you all you need to know. Every game is hard.”