Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Have you ever watched a training run by Kelvin Sampson?
They are legendary for their severity. They are fast and fierce. In fact, it can be very bad. Sampson compares each other to a raging thunderstorm. Sometimes, it’s more like a “tsunami,” he says.
Bulk ball drills soaked in sweat. banging bodies. Squeaky sneakers.
Those are the practices of a mill, a man who admitted he had an inferiority complex as a young head coach in Pac-12. Now he says it’s a case born of the coach you see today, the person standing in a dimly lit walkway at the PPG Paints Arena after leading the Houston Cougars to the third consecutive Sweet 16 episode.
Teams emulate their coach, and boy does this. On Sunday afternoon against the regular season champion Illinois, the number 5 seed Cougars showed the entire nation Houston Hustle. This quick 68-53 victory looked like a rock-solid battle in the middle of the street between two neighborhood competitors. While Illinois had the biggest boulder—7 feet, 285 pounds from the Kofi Cockburn Center monster—Houston’s guns were solid during weeks of intense grinding.
LIVE BRACKET: Follow the NCAA Men’s Championship
“The story of this match is our strength, how hard we play and how hard we defend,” Sampson said afterwards.
hardness? Yes, Houston had 15 offensive rebounds and, overall, outperformed a larger opponent by six boards.
How hard is it to play? One of their players, Taze Moore, crashed into the ranks of the press while tracking down a loose ball (Taze turned out to be quite the gentleman—columnist David Jones, who fell during the play, helped above the ground). One of Sampson’s players, Fabian White Jr., nearly poached more reporters in a miraculous blocking of another losing ball, putting it back in play with a late-game decisive throwback that sparked social media panic.
defense as you say? Houston had eight robberies, forced 17 turns and blocked six shots. The Cougars (31-5) set the big man, Cockburn, by six points in the first inning before taking another 13 points from him in the second.
With about seven minutes left in the game, Houston held two shots within two seconds to force a shot clock violation. The Cougars seat roared, Samson threw his fist and Houston closed the door at any potential return from Eleni (23-10). It keeps hopes up for a back-to-back trip to the Final Four.
The faces of Houston 2022 are very different from the faces of the 2021 team that marched to the semi-finals while inside the bubble in Indianapolis last March. However, they play the same game: bad defense, violent rebounding, and fast running of the loose ball.
They throw their bodies around without a care. why? “He’s our heart,” says Jamal Shed, the team’s goalkeeper. “We don’t want to lose.”
Go to follow
Shedd, a 19-year-old sophomore, is usually the playmaker of this group, running point and setting shots. On Sunday, he scored 18 goals, burying key shots late in the game. Moore is this team’s 6’6″ swing player. Besides crashing his press row, he’s scored 21 highs in the game and has seven plates.
Moore, a sixth-year player from Mississippi, has made huge leaps in his development since the summer. Sampson described his game as “a fart in a frying pan”.
Seven months later, there’s no fart – just a frying pan.
“My teammates encouraged me to be the brave strong man that I am now,” Moore said. Tough and brave? That’s the team in a nutshell – kind of like their coach.
The 67-year-old Sampson was born into a Native American community in North Carolina and began his major coaching career when he was 25 years old at the lowest college degree, at NAIA Montana Tech. The Orediggers won zero conference games in their first season before winning the league in Year 3.
Then he moved to Washington State, where he sat at the bottom of the Pac-12 Conference hall-of-fame.
“I’m just an old NAIA guy from North Carolina who got some jobs early on when he was young,” he says. “Maybe I had a bit of an inferiority complex. I coached in the league with older guys and felt like I wasn’t as good as them. The only way I felt even on the field was to work harder than them.
“I was 31 as head coach against Lotte Olson and Mike Montgomery. I didn’t think I belonged.”
He smiles as he thinks about it. “What prompted me?” Asked. “I wanted to belong.”
In his eighth year in Houston, he revived the program as well as his coaching career, once sullied by the NCAA scandal. The Cougars have made a group 5 force, attractive enough to get an invite to the Big 12 (they’ll start playing there as early as 2023).
It belongs now, right? It’s the old man, veteran, American Lotte Olson, Mike Montgomery of the Group of Five.
“Nana,” Sampson muttered. “I’m still that guy at Montana Tech.”
And what awaits in Houston training on Monday? tsunami
More coverage of March Madness:
• Sampson celebrates shirtless in the locker room after the Illinois win
• ‘Drew Timme Effect’ begins just in time with Gonzaga
• St. Peter’s, the first weekend brings out the best of the CBB