ON THE RISE

Fred Faour: Sampson's coaching at UH this season is nothing short of amazing

Kelvin Sampson has done a great job at UH this season. UHCougars.com

It has gone largely overlooked, but one of the best coaching jobs this city has seen in a while is happening at the University of Houston.

You probably have not noticed in a year where people are still basking in the Astros World Series win and riding the Rockets to record heights, but Kelvin Sampson and the Cougars have quietly completed an outstanding regular season, finishing 24-6 and tying for second in the American Athletic Conference, which is a solid basketball conference.

What Sampson has accomplished at UH is nothing short of amazing. The Cougars have not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2010, when a surprising C-USA tournament title run got them there. Even then, they would not have made it without winning the conference tournament.

They have not won an NCAA Tournament game since 1994, when Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon was prowling the floor. They have been there just four times since that win.

Four times in 34 years. Just once since 1992. No wins.

The Cougars are not likely to win the AAC tournament this week. They will probably get Central Florida in the quarterfinals, and would also presumably have to beat both Wichita State and Cincinnati after that. But they did beat both of those teams in the regular season, and the Cougars are playing their best basketball now.

Regardless of what happens this week, the Cougars are headed to the NCAAs, barring a ridiculous snub. The Cougars finished the regular season with a 14-4 AAC mark. They had the same overall and conference record as Wichita State, which spent most of the season in the top 15.

Their overall resume is impressive. They have a 4-2 record against the top 50, 6-2 against the top 51. They have signature wins over Cincinnati, Wichita State, Arkansas and Providence, all top 50s. They are 2-0 against Temple, which is No. 51 in RPI. They lack a little in big road wins -- at Temple, Central Florida and SMU are probably their best -- but overall they had a strong season.

All six losses came away from Houston. They lost to the AAC’s Big 2 (Cincy and Wichita) on the road, which is no shame. Losses at LSU and Memphis were understandable, as those are adequate if not spectacular teams. The other two losses -- at Tulane and Drexel (neutral site) are head-scratchers.

Still, it is a resume that stacks up well. A run to the finals in the AAC tournament might even bump them as high as a five seed. The most impressive part of the Cougars’ season? They went 15-0 at home, which is quite the accomplishment, considering they played no real home games. The Cougars played at TSU while the Fertitta Center is being renovated.

That they have Sampson at all is a bit lucky. He has taken three other schools -- Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana -- to the tournament and has 571 career wins. NCAA troubles ended his tenure at Indiana, and he wound up as an assistant with the Rockets. If not for those circumstances, Sampson would likely have never wound up at UH. He went 13-19 in his first year on Cullen, but has won at least 20 games in each of his last three seasons, taking his team to the NIT the past two seasons. This year they appear to have broken through to the NCAAs.

The Cougars could even win a game in the NCAA Tournament -- perhaps two with the right second-round matchup. They have a veteran backcourt, including star senior guard Rob Gray, and a collection of athletic bigs that have gotten better each game, as Sampson has molded this group into a team that plays hard and has been fun to watch all season.

And all thanks to a great coaching job, even if the average Houston sports fan has not noticed.

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome