Houston Cougars guard Marcus Sasser (0) celebrates a late three-pointer as Auburn Tigers take on Houston Cougars in the second round of NCAA Tournament at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Ala., on Saturday, March 18, 2023. Houston Cougars defeated Auburn Tigers 81-64.
The importance of trust, accountability with Houston Cougars basketball
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Everything with the Houston Cougars basketball program revolves around its culture.
Culture is a word written inside the Guy V. Lewis Development Facility’s film room and often said by multiple players and head coach Kelvin Sampson.
The word ‘culture’ stands for many things, but trust and accountability are a few big components that make up Houston’s culture. Every player within the program must live up to those standards, and if they let up at any point, they will be made aware of it and forced to correct it.
“Everybody’s got a team,” Sampson told reporters on Tuesday’s Zoom call. “But do you have a program? You have a culture? That is standards, expectations and accountability. The word probably not used enough in those areas is relationships. You’ve got to have a relationship. I got to be able to trust you, man.”
Trust is something all of Sampson’s key contributors this season have had to earn.
Junior Jamal Shead, the starting point guard heading into Houston’s Sweet Sixteen matchup against Miami in the NCAA Tournament, started earning Sampson’s trust his freshman year.
The Cougars were on the road in Dallas taking on SMU. Shead’s first few months of the season had not gone well in terms of building trust with Sampson, he told Gallery Sports in the locker room of T-Mobile Arena on Thursday afternoon.
Freshman moments were in abundance for the Manor native prior to the game against the Mustangs in early January 2021. That all began to change versus SMU.
Starting guards DeJon Jarreau, Quentin Grimes and then-sophomore Marcus Sasser each picked up two fouls in the first half, which led to Shead entering the game.
He played 10 minutes in the first half, and he didn’t make any mistakes and played great defense, Shead stated.
From then on, Shead said he knew he had earned some of Sampson’s trust because the coach left him in the game.
“That’s when he gained a vote of confidence, a vote of trust in me … you have to make him trust you,” Shead explained. “There is nothing given at this point of your career. You have to earn his trust, make sure he knows what you’re capable of and just play as hard as you can when you’re playing for him.”
Coincidentally, Sasser said he first began gaining Sampson’s trust in a game against SMU during his freshman year, too.
In a year where the Dallas native was trying to carve a niché for himself on the Houston Cougars, Sasser had worked his way into UH’s starting lineup for a January home game against SMU.
A few weeks later, when Sasser and the Coogs played the Mustangs on the road, the then-freshman put together his best performance up to that point. For Sasser, that game is when Sampson’s trust in him really began to grow.
“I had a great game,” Sasser said. “We lost, but I was a freshman playing on the road. I kind of played well. Just showing him that I can play on the road, I think that is when I started gaining his trust and then it just went up from there.”
While trust is built through consistent success and production in between the 94-foot slab of hardwood on game days, the building blocks needed to have the opportunity to earn trust begin in practice. Sampson makes sure that everyone upholds the standard.
That is why Sasser, Shead, and everyone that goes through the Houston program spends most of their first days running.
One of the things Sampson makes his players run is called a shuttle — a sprint that involves running from one baseline to the opposite free-throw line and back, and then the length of the entire court and back three times in 65 seconds.
“He used to tell me to get on the line and just run,” Sasser recalled. “I already knew what I did to mess up but you know he is just a great coach. That is what he does. He is going to run you and stuff like that until you get it.”
Once a player has earned the head coach’s trust, the running becomes less frequent. But make no mistake about it, if he sees any let up, Sampson will address it.
“He will get on you and be like ‘you know better,’ or stuff like that,” Sasser said. “It is kind of a different vibe like you can just tell. I can’t really explain it but you can just tell as a player [when you’ve earned his trust].”