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.

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THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR: Quaker State 400 preview

Photo via: WikiCommons.

This week, the NASCAR cup series heads to Kentucky Motor Speedway for the Quaker State 400. Built in 2001, this track is a 1.5 mile tri-oval with a dog-leg on the front stretch. The most dangerous part of the track has to be turn three as the corner is flat compared to the other three corners that are banked. This has been a major point of contingency for these drivers as most of the cautions end up being there. Look for turn three to be a hot spot come Sunday. Last year, both the Busch brothers finished 1-2 in one of the most exciting finishes of the season so there will be a lot of hype for this race to live up to.

Last week at Indy, as we all expected the race was a crazy one. Over the course of the race's 160 laps, we saw many horrific accidents including a scary pit road accident involving Corey Lajoe, Ryan Blaney, Justin Allgier, Ryan Preece and others. The wreck started when everyone got stacked up entering the pits and the calamity was on from there. During the wreck Brennan Poole struck Rear Tire Changer Zach Price as he was trying to avoid the wrecking cars in front of him. After the incident fans and media alike all held their breath as they awaited news on his condition. But when the camera panned to him being loaded into the ambulance, there was a huge sigh of relief as he gave everyone a thumbs up signifying he was okay. Another scary moment was both Erik Jones and Alex Bowman's vicious crashes. Both cars had tire failures that sent their cars directly into the wall. Fortunately both drivers were okay but their days were over.

In the end, tire wear would end up claiming one more victim as it took out Denny Hamlin as well. With seven laps to go, the four-time winner this season was in prime position to get his fifth victory until his right front tire blew out, sending him hard into the turn 2 wall. This mishap handed the win to his main rival in the championship, Kevin Harvick, as he went on to claim his third Brickyard 400 victory and fourth win of the year. When it was all over, many questioned why there were so many tire failures and if new owner Roger Penske would make an effort to possibly widen the pit-road after the massive accident on Sunday.

Needless to say, there are a lot of questions on what will be different at Indy in 2021. When I talked to spotter Freddie Kraft on Tuesday, he gave a lot of good insights on both topics. When it came to the tire failures, he talked about how the increasing corner speeds at the racetrack has put a lot of pressure on these Goodyear tires which eventually led to them coming apart. As far as Pit-Road and what they can do to fix that, he talked about how it is difficult to make changes to a track that is so historical. Which makes sense, but he followed this up by saying that maybe it would be wise to give up a little history and move the wall over and make it wider. It will be interesting to see what NASCAR does in the coming months.

On Friday, Associated Press journalist Jenna Fryer revealed a bombshell announcement that 7-time champion and NASCAR's biggest name Jimmie Johnson, had tested positive for coronavirus. As everyone knows, the world is going through the worst pandemic it's ever faced in this lifetime. With the sport coming back and racing again, it was only a matter of time until one of the drivers came down with it. Unfortunately it had to be NASCAR's most recognizable driver. Thankfully, Jimmie made a full recovery and was cleared to return this weekend at Kentucky. This was a big scare for everyone in the NASCAR world, but I have to give a lot of credit to Johnson for being as forthright as he was about his diagnosis with everyone who he works with. It will be good to have Jimmie back on Sunday.

The driver that I have winning this weekend is Kyle Busch. While this season has been a disappointment for the defending champion, Kentucky would be a great place for him to turn it around. Ever since the cup series has started going there, Kyle has always been in contention to win. In fact, he won the first cup series race that was run at this track back in 2011. In his nine starts there, Kyle has finished outside the top ten only once and even then he finished 12th, back in 2016. Last season it appeared that Kyle was on his way to a third victory at this track, but he came up one spot short to his brother Kurt in a fantastic last lap duel. After a late race restart this weekend though, I see Kyle redeeming himself and capturing his first victory of 2020. Look for Kyle to get back on track come Sunday.


All stats and information used in this article are brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com, the best websites for all NASCAR stats.

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