Loss doesn't dim hopes

UH’s national prominence sees ESPN College GameDay hosted at Fertitta Center

Jackson T. Gatlin/SportsMap

The excitement in the air was palpable as fans stormed the Fertitta Center doors for the first-come, first-seating to take part in ESPN College GameDay at the University of Houston this past Saturday.

Free basketball net hats, hilarious handmade signs and a sea of red dawned the stands as the GameDay broadcast hit the airwaves at 10 a.m.

Fans of all shapes and sizes, including the newly-famous "Trash Can Man" were joined together to celebrate the University of Houston men's basketball program and its rise to national relevancy; relevancy that has not been seen since the days when Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler were walking around as students and Phi Slama Jama was dominating opposing teams on the hardwood.

But can head coach Kelvin Sampson and his squad finish off the historic run with a national title?

"They're absolutely good enough," said ESPN's Jay Bilas. "Kelvin Sampson's done a remarkable job resurrecting this program. He's built it on taking care of the ball, on defense and on rebounding. That's the identity of this team. They're legit and they can get to the Final Four."

The GameDay crew proceeded to discuss tournament seeding, and upon bringing up Duke as the (likely) No. 1 seed, the raucous Cougar crowd began to chant "overrated" and "we want Duke" behind them.

While there are plenty of successful programs across America, Duke being one of them, Houston and coach Sampson's recipe for success boils down to one thing: family.

"Most important thing to me is my faith and family," Sampson said. "I don't think I was great at those early on. Coming here was a chance to get the family together. That's why this is the best job I've ever had."

From benching senior Corey Davis Jr. in the first half of a game earlier this year because he was late to the bus or showing support for redshirt sophomore DeJon Jarreau after a death in his family, Coach Sampson has developed a culture of family-first values and accountability at the University of Houston.

He even invites players to his house the night before a game to enjoy fresh baked chocolate chip cookies made by his wife Karen, a ritual they have all come to enjoy.

"He's teaching them history, and that's why they have such a strong foundation," said Cougar basketball alumnus and former Houston Rocket Elvin Hayes. "We got to the final four; they can maybe get to the championship."

Hayes was not the only alumnus and ex-Rocket in "Coogs" house Saturday, as Olajuwon also joined the show to provide his insight on coach Sampson and the UH basketball program.

"Coach Sampson has done a fantastic job gaining national attention. He's tough and demanding. I think they wouldn't have been able to find anyone better to turn this program around," Olajuwon said.

Despite recording just its second loss of the season against the UCF Knights later that afternoon, the Cougars have nothing to be ashamed of.

A few fans trickled out early when it became clear UCF was destined to win, but the majority of them stayed and applauded, still proud of their now 27-2 ball club.

Backed by legends, analysts and billionaire Tilman Fertitta, whose name hangs off the sides of the building, Cougar nation could not have asked for a better leader of a basketball Renaissance than Kelvin Sampson.

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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