The Houston Cougars of the 1980s were so close to winning a national championship. Led by head coach Guy Lewis and Pro Basketball Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, the Cougars went to three straight Final Fours (1982-1984), and back-to-back championship game appearances. In both instances the Cougars came up short, losing to N.C. State and Georgetown.
But you can’t talk 1980s NCAA basketball without mentioning those Houston squads. Things went pretty dormant for the program after those years. That is until Kelvin Sampson arrived in 2014. Since his arrival the program has experienced plenty of success, including another trip to the Final Four and two Elite Eight appearances. And while those teams were very good, this 2022-23 version may be Sampson and the Cougars’ best shot at national title.
At 29-2 and ranked No. 1 in the country, the Cougars are a lock to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and they could get the top overall seed in the 68-team affair.
Winners of the American Athletic Conference for the fourth time in five years, the Cougars are primed to make that run to H-Town and this year’s Final Four.
Sampson’s Focus Isn’t Looking Ahead
While getting to the Final Four in Houston would be unbelievable, and the Cougars are a betting favorite to do so, Sampson doesn’t want his team to look ahead too much. He’s old school and believes in letting his team’s play take care of everything. He told reporters this after one of last week’s practices.
“I don’t really think about it,” Sampson said. “We’ve been winning for a long, long time. I just don’t ever get carried away with it. There will be a time to reflect on things, but now is not the time.”
Sampson hopes that time comes on the first Monday in April with the national championship trophy in his possession.
Sampson Has A Track Record Of Winning At Every Stop
Sampson has a track record of winning in places like Washington State and took the Oklahoma Sooners to the 2002 Final Four.
Then in 2006, he was hired to replace Mike Davis at Indiana. Funny how things turn out, as Davis was the coach who beat Sampson and the Sooners in the 2002 Final Four.
Sampson became the second Black head coach in program history along with the aforementioned Davis. He led the Hoosiers to the NCAA Tournament in his first year. In his second season, he was forced to resign due to serious NCAA violations.
As a result of these violations, Sampson received a five-year show-cause penalty. Meaning he couldn’t be hired by any other NCAA program for at least those five-years.
It was actually a blessing in disguise. Sampson ventured to the NBA ,where he became an assistant for the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets, spending three years in each spot. In the league he began to rebuild his image, hoping another shot would come, as it always seemingly does for his Caucasian counterparts.
Houston Become National Powerhouse Under Sampson
In 2014, he was hired to coach the Houston Cougars, and he says he’s thankful for the opportunity to get back to his roots.
He was instrumental in getting the funding ($25 million) for the program to build a brand new practice facility in 2016, and he influenced the $60 million renovation to then-Hofheinz Pavilion (later renamed the Fertitta Center) after current Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who happens to be an alumnus of the school.
Things didn’t turn around overnight for Sampson, but in his second and third season, they made the NIT.
Sampson stated he didn’t come to Houston to make NITs, although he knew they had to start somewhere with rebuilding the program. In 2018 his fourth season they made the NCAA Tourney, posted a Top 25 finish and won the program’s first NCAA game since 1984.
In 2019, the Cougars won a school-record 33 games, only the third 30-win season in school history.
They capped that historic season off with a Sweet 16 appearance, their deepest run since making it to the 1983 and 1984 national championship games. They were primed to make a run in 2020, but March Madness was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020-21 he led the Cougars to their first conference tourney title since 2010, and in the NCAA Tourney they became the first team ever to face four teams seeded ten or higher en-route to the Final Four.
In reality this Cougars run is three years in the making, when you consider they ran into the Baylor Bears buzz saw in 2021 and the gritty hard-nosed Villanova Wildcats in last year’s Elite Eight. But in this year’s tourney there isn’t a Baylor or Villanova to stand in their way, and that should bode well for them.
Guard Play Will Carry The Day
In the NCAA Tournament, elite and steady guard play has long been the recipe to a title. The last four champions (Villanova, UVA, Baylor and Kansas) got that in abundance as they cut down the nets for their “One Shining Moment.”
In order for Sampson’s team to do so they’ll need their two best at their very best. The play of guards Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead will go a long way in determining if they make it to Houston for the Final Four.
The dynamic duo is led by Sasser’s nearly 18 points per game, good enough for him to be named AAC Player of the Year on Wednesday. And Shead, who was named Defensive Player of the Year, is their floor leader and averages nearly 11 points and six assists per game.
Shead is also their clutch shotmaker. Throw in dynamic freshman Jarace Walker and his 12 points and seven rebounds per game, and this team, with its size, experience and physicality, can make life miserable for any team.
The Cougars want to do nothing more than be in H-Town at the end of this month, not watching, but taking the floor at NRG Stadium in search of that elusive title.
This might be the year.
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