Richard Justice: For UH, it’s all a dress rehearsal for the madness to come

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Christian Smith/AP/Shutterstock (13745380b) Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson yells from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Cincinnati, in Houston Cincinnati Basketball, Houston, United States – 28 Jan 2023

Richard Justice: For UH, it’s all a dress rehearsal for the madness to come

   These are all dress rehearsals for the No. 1-ranked men’s basketball team in the country. Because the NCAA Tournament is three weeks away. Because Kelvin Sampson has a team that can win it all.

   Roll that thought around in your head. Sampson’s teams at the University of Houston are 141-24 these last five seasons and have advanced to the Final Four (2021), Sweet 16 (2019), and Elite Eight (2022).

   They’ve been so consistently good that it’s easy to forget that in the 24 seasons before he arrived the Cougars had one NCAA Tournament appearance and zero victories.

   UH had been so irrelevant for so long that administrators and boosters had trouble grasping something like this was possible. That is, that UH could be a consistent national championship contender with a coach that did not see it as a steppingstone to a better job.

   In nine years, Sampson has convinced the UH family of two things: greatness is still possible, and the exposure from that greatness, the platform it affords, is invaluable in terms of brand, contributions, and sustainability.

   Also, this: These Cougars are a joy to watch. They’re all in on both ends of the floor, especially the defensive side, which is where everything starts for this coach.

   “Kelvin is a defensive genius,” former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey once told me.

    Defense is X’s and O’s for sure. Defense is also about effort and desire and banging bodies. This is what Sampson demands, and that’s what can carry deep into March again.

   “There can’t be ups and downs with effort,” Sampson said after Sunday’s 72-64 victory over Memphis in front of a big, noisy crowd of 7,730 at the Fertitta Center.

   (Thank you, Tillman. Thank you for believing in your alma mater and doing what virtually no one thought possible. Thanks too, for making sure your coaches have the resources to climb the highest mountains.)

   “How hard you play, how hard you go out and compete—that is something that we try to hang our hats on,” Sampson said. “I don’t want our kids to think playing well equates to how many points I score or how many shots I get. It’s hard to play great every night doing that. Good teams defend, rebound, and they place unselfish first.”

   Memphis might have been a perfect opponent for this point in a long season. UH stretched its record to 25-2, but it was a bruising game, a game in which UH took every Memphis punch and delivered a few of its own.

   Forward J’wan Roberts played a complete game with 20 points and 12 rebounds, including four on the offensive end. Marcus Sasser had 20 points and was eight for eight from the foul line. The Coogs made 23-of-26 from the stripe.

   Sampson rode his starters as he works Terrance Arceneaux back into the mix. His previous UH teams haven’t had this much quality depth, and it’ll be interesting to watch his tournament rotations. But the bottom line is obvious.

   “The makeup of this team is winners,” Sampson said. “These kids know how to win. They don’t look great every night. I never thought it is a beauty contest. Can we play better? Absolutely. That was not our A-game tonight, but the other team could play better as well. I am proud of our effort. It is our big one. We have four games left. We don’t get to relax.”

   Memphis is fighting for its NCAA Tournament life, and like its head coach, Penny Hardaway, once did, Memphis plays with a chip on its shoulder.

   Memphis could have gone a long way toward locking up a March Madness berth with a victory at the Fertitta Center on Sunday afternoon, and the Tigers kept coming at the Coogs.

   UH stretched its 11-point halftime lead to 13 with 7:09 remaining. Memphis cut it to six. Then five with 2:24 remaining.

   Memphis twice had possessions that would have made it a one-possession game. One time, Jarace Walker grabbed a defensive rebound. Then he forced a turnover.

   UH made 9 of 10 foul shots down the stretch to close it out, and when it ended, the Coogs had won a game when they were at less than their best (3-of-17 3-point shooting). 

   “I felt like we had to keep our composure and handle adversity,” Sasser said. “I felt like we did a good job staying composed.”   

   But this one had a March feel because Memphis is on desperation footing and because UH had to win it with elbows and grit instead of artistry.

   “They just play hard. They expect to win, and they play hard,” Hardaway said. “They make plays when they have to make plays. No matter how much you have them down, no matter how much you think you’re in the game, what they do is keep grinding because that’s their culture.”

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