Houston Cougars enter new season with the right mix of ingredients to become the last gumbo standing

Houston Cougars men’s basketball head coach Kelvin Sampson commands his team during its first practice of the season in September. (Courtesy Sean Thomas)

Houston Cougars enter new season with the right mix of ingredients to become the last gumbo standing

The Houston Cougars’ men’s basketball team is days away from the dawn of a new regular season.

Houston, which enters the preseason ranked third in the country in the Associated Press and coaches poll, who was also picked unanimously to finish first in the American Athletic Conference, will tip off its 2022-23 campaign Nov. 7 at home against Northern Colorado.

The Cougars’ training camp throughout October garnered some buzz, specifically regarding the scrimmages with Texas and Duke, two programs that are also among the top of the nation in the national polls. For head coach Kelvin Sampson, this year’s team has already shown him things that stick out.

“These kids really believe in our culture, and [the returning players] do a great job of teaching our young guys,” Sampson said.

For guard Marcus Sasser, who has racked up numerous preseason awards of his own, this year’s iteration of the Cougars has shown a lot of selflessnesses.

“This team is very unselfish,” Sasser told reporters on Tuesday. “We play together. We played hard, competed (in the scrimmages). We (were) undisciplined in some stuff, but you know, it’s still early. I think as time goes on, we’ll start being disciplined.”

The team’s new players never have to look far to learn about the program, Sampson said.

Houston has four new faces in transfers Darius Bowser and Mylik Wilson, and freshmen Jarace Walker and Terrance Arceneaux. UH also has another freshman in Emanuel Sharp, who joined the program early as a redshirt midseason in 2022.

Throughout the course of a season, there are various things players need to pick up.

“How do you guard a pick and roll? How do you guard a pindown? How do you guard a cross-screen? How do you guard a side pick and roll? How do you guard a post-up? What if you get switched off a big on a guard or vice versa?” Sampson said. “There is a lot of things to get, and it takes a while.”

Sampson likes to use holidays as time markers to gauge where his team is at and how they are progressing.

From Halloween to Thanksgiving, the team is getting its first games of the year under its belt. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, the team wraps up most of its nonconference slate, Sampson said.

From Christmas to Valentine’s Day, the bulk of a conference schedule is played. From Valentine’s Day to St. Patrick’s Day, that’s when a team puts its foot on the gas as it gears up for an NCAA Tournament run. If a team really excels, come April Fools’ Day it can even look ahead at a Final Four and a national championship.

For Houston, any outside expectations from pundits, media and fans are just extra noise. The Cougars are looking to run their own race, or as Sampson put it, they are aiming to make their own gumbo.

There are various pieces and ingredients to create gumbo. But there needs to be the right balance.

“Somebody got to be the okra man,” Sampson said. “Somebody’s got to be the tomatoes. Somebody’s got to be that crab leg. That piece of sausage. That shrimp. That chicken. You can’t have a pot full of just chicken.”

Houston has several ingredients, with guard Jamal Shead and Marcus Sasser steering the way from a leadership standpoint. Sophomore guard Ramon Walker is like the chicken of the gumbo that is the Cougars. It might not be the main ingredient, but it plays a crucial role in the gumbo’s success.

“We are not asking Ramon to be the sausage. We want him to be the chicken,” Sampson said. “We got somebody else over here that can be the crab leg or can be the shrimp, or can be the okra, or the tomato, or the rice. Our team has guys that are good at some things, not very good at others but that is why we have a good ol’ pot of gumbo. We are not a one-trick pony.”

Come Nov. 7 when Houston faces off against Northern Colorado, Sampson expects to be able to use all of his ingredients when he mixes up his first gumbo of the season, although some might be a bit bruised up.

Sharp has dealt with a couple of injuries, a sprained thumb on his shooting hand and also a strained calf. He is expected to be active come Monday, Sampson said. Center Darius Bowser has also been battling with a non-COVID-related illness that has kept him out of most Houston practices this week.

Houston is no stranger to postseason success. Winners of the AAC Tournament in back-to-back years and a Final Four and Elite Eight in the last two NCAA Tournaments, Monday’s opener will tip off a highly anticipated year for the Cougars.

“We know what it takes,” Sasser said. “When things get hard, we try to use that as motivation. We’ve been to the Final Four. We know what it takes to get there, so keep pushing through when you hit adversity. We hit adversity that year we went to the Final Four. Just always having that in your background is good to have.”

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