Mandatory Credit: Photo by Kevin M Cox/AP/Shutterstock (13639034t) Kent State guard Sincere Carry (3) is blocked by Houston forward Jarace Walker (25) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, in Houston Kent State Basketball, Houston, United States – 26 Nov 2022
“If playing defense was easy, then everybody would be good defensively. It’s not easy winning the way we win.”—Kelvin Sampson
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It’s also how national championships are won, and that’s why Sampson preaches it, demands it, and now has the No. 1-team in men’s college basketball.
That No. 1 ranking hasn’t happened to the University of Houston in three decades and is a tribute to all the people that refused to concede it would never be relevant in athletics again.
It’s also a recognition of the phenomenal job Sampson has done in building a program and reminding UH leadership that athletics can enhance a school’s reputation, increase its contributions and provide a window into all the school’s good work in other areas.
Whether the Coogs stay atop the polls for a week or a month is beside the point. Because this team is good enough to win. Because this team plays a style that can win.
Offense is fickle. Shots don’t fall every game, tip-ins roll off the rim, stuff happens. Defense is different. Defense shows up every night. Defense sets a tone. Defense frustrates opponents.
Rebounding does, too. Those things are about effort and desire, and toughness, three traits all of college basketball associates with the University of Houston.
“We’ve always hung our hat on defense here,” Sampson said. “There are three things that’s allowed us to be successful year in, year out regardless of what team it is: we defend, we rebound, we take care of the ball.”
Even better, this team has the kind of depth Sampson hasn’t had on his seven previous UH squads. He’ll have the luxury of rotating fresh players into games to make sure nothing comes easy for an opponent. Nine Cougars are averaging double-digit minutes; Only Marcus Sasser is at 30 minutes per game (30.1).
“Last year, I always felt like I was coaching with one arm tied behind my back a little bit because I lived in constant fear of foul trouble and fatigue because we had no depth,” Sampson said. “It affected the way I coached and the way I had to manage the game. This year if you are not doing what I ask you to do, sit down. I’m not going to ask twice.”
The Coogs are a joy to watch. They contest passes, dive for loose balls, and control the area around the basket with a style that’s both fearless and intimidating.
Having them in your face for 40 minutes means an opponent will have his will to win tested. Do you really want to keep trying to run your offense through all the big bodies and quick hands and sharp elbows?
The Coogs are allowing the fewest points in the country, 47.3 per game. They’re also holding opponents to—wait for it—29.1% shooting, also the best in the nation.
Settle for a three? UH opponents are shooting 20% beyond the arc, second-best in the country.
Guards Sasser and Jamal Shead can create offense both in the open floor and half-court sets. They also create it with deflected passes, long rebounds, and positioning themselves defensively to disrupt things.
Ja’Vier Francis and J’Wan Roberts do the same things around the basket with blocked shots and a smothering presence. Tramon Mark, Jarace Walker, and Terrence Arceneaux are prototype UH players that do almost everything well.
“They are veterans, their guard experience, inside they have big bodies, athletic bodies,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said after a 66-56 loss to UH. “Real difficult assignment… a very tough team to match up against because of their depth and experience.
“Their length, their quickness… Getting hands on balls. I was watching the film the day, and the number of deflections and hands on balls they got, it’s just very impressive. They know who they are. They play within their system pretty well.”
Having gone to the Final Four and Elite Eight the past two seasons has prepared UH for the NCAA Tournament. It has also put a target on its back, which is not a bad thing.
“Ever since the year when we got to the Final Four, every game after that it was (opponents’) biggest game,” Sasser said. “I feel like it’s a good thing for us to help us come out every game with our ‘A’ game because every team is trying to beat us. It’s hard to get (to the Final Four). There’s not a lot of teams that even make it there. We’ve been there before. We know what it takes.”