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