Richard Justice: Sampson on win-or-go-home games and the brotherhood that is University of Houston basketball

Mar 15, 2023; Birmingham, AL, USA; Houston Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson watches over practice at Legacy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Justice: Sampson on win-or-go-home games and the brotherhood that is University of Houston basketball

   Kelvin Sampson told the story halfway through a half-hour chat with reporters on Tuesday. It ultimately was a story about brotherhood and really about what he has built at the University of Houston these nine seasons.

   One of his players kept making the same mistake over and over during practice, and as the mistakes multiplied, this player had to line up and run a sprint. If he didn’t finish in a certain time, he had to run it again.

   At some point, as the kid kept making the same mistake and then lining up and running the same sprint, teammate Jamal Shead began to run with him. And when the player was about to miss the cutoff time for finishing the sprint, Shead began pushing his teammate toward the finish line.

   Sampson’s news conferences are dotted with coaching lessons he has learned through the years. About the importance of building trust and relationships. About dealing with adversity. Also about the things that are “non-negotiable.”

   He has run about a million practices in his 40 years as a head coach, and for some reason, the memory of this moment likely will stick with him forever.

   “That’s a brother,” Sampson said. “That’s his leadership. We didn’t have that when we got here. We had to build that as part of our culture. That second year, it started coming. The third year, fourth year, it just has built and built and built. We’ve been doing this for nine years. So this is nothing new here.

   “The difference in programs and teams is usually accountability. Everybody’s got a team. But do you have a program? Do you have a culture? That’s standards and expectations and accountability. The word that’s probably not used enough is relationships. You gotta have a relationship. I gotta be able to trust you, and they gotta be able to trust me. That’s why telling them the truth, even though it’s something they may not want to hear, is what they love.”

   He also knows that what happened in the opening victories over Northern Kentucky and Auburn added to a reservoir of confidence and how to handle tough times.

   The Coogs had played three ragged halves of basketball when they found themselves down 10 points at halftime against Auburn. In that game, he would have his starting backcourt of Shead and Marcus Sasser on the bench in foul trouble.

   All of a sudden, UH fans could see this dream season slipping away. Maybe there’d be no Elite Eight matchup with Texas, maybe no Final Four at NRG Stadium.

   That’s when Tramon Mark played the best game of his UH career, scoring 20 of his 26 points in the second half and going 8-for-8 from the foul line in the final 6:07. (Houston made all 18 of its foul shots in the second half). Mark is a big reason the Coogs are back in the Sweet 16 with a Friday game against Miami in Kansas City.

   “Poise is something you can see when nobody else is around,” Sampson said. “We prepare when nobody’s looking, so when everybody is looking, we’re ready. That doesn’t mean the ball’s always going to go in. When Jamal and Marcus got four fouls, there wasn’t any panic. We kind of knew what we were going to do. It’s not like I had a million choices.”

   Houston dominated the second half against Auburn 50-23 and turned that 10-point halftime deficit into an 81-64 rout. For the first time in two postseason games, the Coogs looked like the team that made them the betting favorite to win it all.

   On Tuesday, Sampson sat at his desk and pointed to a board to his right that detailed the day’s schedule and the points he wanted to emphasize in practice. On his left was a board with a Miami scouting report. Business as usual.

   When someone asked about the mentality of playing a win-or-go-home game, Sampson said such things didn’t register.

   “I live in a very simple world,” he said. “You just described a world that I can’t relate to. Nothing influences my decisions other than winning. You do the best you can.

   “I don’t coach with regrets. Do the best you can. We can play really good and lose Friday because Miami is really good. Miami could play really good and lose. But one of us is going to go home. It’s the way it is. It’s my 19th NCAA Tournament. I’ve won a bunch of games, I’ve lost a bunch of games. That’s just the way it is.

   “You don’t go home and punch holes in the wall because you lost. You did the best you can. That’s one of the great things as you get older that you you’re at peace with. This is a moment in time. So all it is just a game man. It’s our 37th game. I’m not going to coach game No. 37 any different than I coached No. 7. It just means more.”

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