One of the key areas for Houston Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson in recruiting: high character

Houston Cougars guard Jamal Shead brings up the ball against North Florida on Tuesday, Dec. 6 inside of the Fertitta Center. (Courtesy Sean Thomas)

One of the key areas for Houston Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson in recruiting: high character

The Houston Cougars men’s basketball team sits at 9-0 ahead of its showdown against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

While it is still early in the season, No. 1 Houston has relied on different players to play in new roles from a year ago. The Cougars lost four seniors from the team that made it to the Elite Eight. They lost Josh Carlton, Taze Moore, Kyler Edwards, and the program’s all-time winningest player, Fabian White Jr.

This season has seen freshman Jarace Walker and junior J’Wan Roberts step into the frontcourt starting lineup. Junior guard Tramon Mark has been inserted into the starting lineup as well, while sophomore Ja’Vier Francis and freshman Terrance Arceneaux have also been added to the rotation to go along with veterans Marcus Sasser, Jamal Shead, and Reggie Chaney.

One of the things most of Houston’s players can relate to is that they have had to wait their turn before becoming a consistent rotation player for the Cougars. When Roberts was a freshman, he hardly played behind White, Brison Gresham, Justin Gorham, and Chaney.

When Shead was a freshman, he hardly played behind Quentin Grimes, DeJon Jarreau, Marcus Sasser, and Mark, and the list goes on and on.

“Everybody waits their turn in our program,” Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson said last Saturday following the team’s win over St. Mary’s. “I think it says a lot about our kids’ character and also our kids’ families.”

In the modern age, it is difficult for programs to keep all their student-athletes satisfied, especially when they are not getting a lot of playing time.

For Sampson, it is an impressive feat that over the course of his time as the leader of the Cougars, only a handful of players that were in UH’s main rotation have ever transferred out of the program.

“We’ve been here going on nine years, and probably the most amazing statistic about, if you take out the COVID year, I think we are averaging 30 wins a year, which is amazing in itself, but then, eight years, in our top 10 players, we’ve had one kid transfer in eight years. Think about that. One kid. They all wait their turn,” Sampson said earlier this week.

The one is guard Caleb Mills, who now plays for Florida State. Cedrick Alley, who also transferred at the end of the 2019-20 season, is arguably No. 2, but his slot in Houston’s rotation had decreased by the time the season had ended.

Since then, players like Roberts, Francis, and Shead have had to wait their turn. This season, it is Emanuel Sharp who is playing sparingly but will be called upon in the future.

Sampson attributes the stability in his program to the kids’ mindset and attitudes. The head coach recruits high-character kids, he said. While there is no exact formula to tell what character a player has, Sampson knows it when he sees it.

“I’ve been doing this for 40 years; I can tell a lot about a kid’s character if he slaps a kid’s hands during the layup line,” Sampson said. “What he’s like when he comes off the floor and is sitting on the bench. Does he look a coach in the eye? When a referee makes a bad call, how do they react? All those things.”

The Cougars recruit good kids that are tough and are coachable, Sampson said. It is why Houston has a great staff and why it has an outstanding program, he added.

“[It is a credit to] attitude and effort, man,” Sampson stated.

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