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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