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Friday, April 2, 2021

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REDEMPTION 2021 Final Four Special Issue

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From the ground up: The Sampson family’s transformation of UH basketball JAMES MUELLER


Only a few years ago, Kelvin Sampson, followed by the Cougar Brass, walked around the Houston campus with a megaphone to convince students to show up to games to support a UH program that had become irrelevant not just nationally but also in the eyes of the city of Houston. From UH basketball’s poorconditioned facilities to little to no support for the program from the University and its fans, Sampson knew the uphill battle he would have to face if he took the head coaching job in 2014. Despite it all, Sampson had a plan. “There was nothing we saw that was not fixable,” Sampson said. “Apathy is fixable. Facilities are fixable.” Fast forward to spring 2021 and Sampson has led UH to its sixth straight 20-win season, which includes three NCAA Tournament appearances and the Cougars’ first trip to the Final Four since the 1984 Phi Slama Jama team. So how has Sampson been able to turn a program that faded into irrelevancy into a national powerhouse? Two words: Family and culture

Family Family is evident in the UH basketball program both literally and metaphorically. For one thing, the UH program is full of Sampson blood as both of Sampson’s kids, Kellen and Lauren, have played a huge part in the Cougars’ success. Kellen, the UH basketball team’s lead assistant coach, has been praised by his father and the UH players for his game planning and the way he coaches the team in practice, always having the Cougars prepared for their opponent. Lauren, who works behind the scenes as the program’s director of external operations, remembers how little support basketball had when she first arrived at UH which has given her a great appreciation for how far the program has come. “(When we first came to UH) no one bought in,” Lauren said. “I can’t tell you how many times I got told no one cares about basketball at Houston. That was a daily conversation I had.” But when the final buzzer sounded against Oregon State securing the Cougars’ ticket to the Final Four, it signified that all the

UH basketball head coach Kelvin Sampson celebrates the Cougars victory over Oregon State at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 29, 2021, in Indianapolis, Indiana. | Photo by Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

blood, sweat and tears that were put into this program was not done in vain. Emotions quickly poured out from all three Sampson’s as they embraced each other in a giant group hug. “It’s surreal to be going through this in (Indiana) and our history with this state,” Lauren said. “… To be going through this NCAA Tournament in Indiana, those emotions just kind of came out.” On top of working with his kids, Sampson treats every single one of his players with the same love, respect and care as if they were his own son. Sampson invests in each student-athlete before they even step on campus, getting to know them because one of his biggest philosophies is recruiting high character kids. As a result, Sampson and his players have formed a tight-knit bond. “I have a very mature bunch and I love them to death,” Sampson said. “… These kids and this staff with the brotherhood they have with this team is part of why we are successful.” And it goes both ways, as the players reciprocate the same love and respect towards their coach. “We love coach Sampson very

much and we’d run through a wall for him,” senior guard DeJon Jarreau said. This father-son-like love that Sampson and his players show towards one another does not end after an athlete’s career at UH is over, but rather extends for life. Former UH guard Armoni Brooks, who was part of the program from 2016-19 and helped lead the Cougars to two NCAA Tournament appearances, emphasized this point as he remains close with the coaches and players two years after leaving the program. “It just shows how much (Sampson) cares about each player, present and past,” Brooks said. It just shows you that if you go to Houston you’re really a Cougar for life. It’s not just for those four years or for however long you’re there. You’re in the family forever.”

Culture The best word to capture the Cougars’ culture is toughness. On paper, UH never has had the most-talented roster in the country under Sampson, but they make up for that with heart and grit. From every guy on the floor crashing the offensive glass to always being the first one on the floor to go after a loose ball, the

Cougars give their all in everything they do. “Toughness. It’s what coach preaches every day,” junior guard Quentin Grimes told the CBS broadcast after the Cougars’ victory over the Beavers. This is what got guys like Damyean Dotson, Rob Gray, Galen Robinson, Corey Davis and Brooks, who laid the groundwork and established the foundation of the program, to come to the UH basketball team when it seemed like the program had no shot at being resurrected. Despite the success, however, Sampson has not forgotten the program’s origins. He takes every chance he gets to remind his team of the guys that went before them and really got the program moving in the right direction. “(It goes) all the way back to Damyean Dotson and Rob Gray cause those guys preached culture to the new guys,” Sampson said. “Every class that comes into UH hears about the culture from the class ahead of them.” In a college basketball era known for one-and-dones, another key aspect has been the duration that UH’s players stayed with the basketball program. UH’s high level of player retention stems from the fact

that the players that step foot on campus are fully bought into the Cougars’ culture. Without it, the Cougars believe they would not be on the biggest stages of college basketball, just two wins away from a national championship. “If you’re focusing just on oneand-dones that means you’re never starting because you’re always starting over,” Sampson said. “It’s hard to get traction if you’re having (to rely on) freshman every single year.” Looking at the current UH roster, nine of the 14 players on the roster had playing experience at the college level before this season. A feat that is extremely rare these days. That experience has paid off with a trip to the Final Four, which for the UH program, is a culmination of the journey. The apathy for the program is long gone. “Best feeling in the world,” Grimes said after the UH basketball team beat Oregon State. “Knowing that we haven’t been to the Final Four since 1984, just to bring it back to the city of Houston that’s all I wanted for me, my teammates, the whole team and the city of Houston.” sports@thedailycougar.com

Friday, April 2, 2021 | 3 ANDY YANEZ, EDITOR





What to know about the Baylor Bears ahead of the Final Four matchup



INDIANAPOLIS — The Houston men’s basketball and Baylor Bears will meet for the first of two Final Four matchups on Saturday inside of Lucas Oil Stadium. The Cougars (28-3) defeated the Oregon State Beavers on Monday, 67-61, to advance to its first Final Four since 1984 and the Phi Slama Jama days. Sophomore guard Marcus Sasser led the team in scoring against the Beavers with 20 points, which included making five 3-pointers. Junior guard Quentin Grimes had 18 points, and senior guard DeJon Jarreau filled up the stat sheet with 10 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Senior forward Justin Gorham tracked down 10 rebounds, five of which were offensive boards. Senior forward Fabian White Jr. had seven rebounds, including five of his own that were offensive rebounds. The Cougars finished with a 19-7 advantage over the Beavers on the offensive glass.

A look at the Bears Baylor (26-2) defeated the Arkansas Razorbacks 81-72 in its Elite Eight matchup to advance to

Justin Gorham (4) of the Houston fights for possession of the ball in a scrum against the Oregon State Beavers in the Elite Eight round of the 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament held at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 29, 2021, in Indianapolis, Indiana. UH will play Baylor in the Final Four. | Photo by Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Saturday’s game against UH. Senior guard MaCio Teague led the Bears in scoring with 22 points and also added five rebounds. The other two guards for Baylor also had a strong showing as junior guard Davian Mitchell had 12 points and six assists, and junior guard Jared Butler finished with 14 points and five assists. For the season, the Bears are led

by Butler, who averages 16.5 points per game. Mitchell averages 14 points and 5.3 assists per contest. Teague averages 15.9 points per matchup. “They’re probably the best team we’ve played so far,” UH head coach Kelvin Sampson said on Thursday morning. “It’s not just their explosive offense, but their defense is equally as good. They

average 21 points a game off other team’s mistakes. Their defense is outstanding. They have great individual talent. Their athleticism is next level.” As a team, Baylor ranks atop the best teams in the nation when it comes to offense. The Bears are sixth in the country in scoring offense, and they are also No. 1 when it comes to 3-point field-goal percentage. That explosiveness on offense along with Baylor’s athleticism has Sampson gearing up for a tough battle, but he is not preparing his team any different from how they have all season long. “(We’re) just keeping our composure, and just doing the same things that have gotten us this far,” Jarreau said on Thursday. That includes emphasizing taking care of the ball and crashing the boards, the guard added. “I feel like if we do those things, and not try to do too much, we’ll put ourselves in a good position to win the game,” Jarreau said. How to watch Saturday’s matchup between UH and Baylor will tipoff at 4:14 p.m. and air on CBS and also be on KPRC 950 AM radio. sports@thedailycougar.com


How DeJon Jarreau became the ‘poster child for senior leadership’ at UH



INDIANAPOLIS — As the 14th minute approached during Houston’s second-round matchup against Rutgers, senior guard DeJon Jarreau chased Scarlet Knights’ senior guard Geo Baker off an inbounds play and ran into a hard screen set by junior center Myles Johnson. Jarreau, less than 48 hours removed from suffering a hip pointer in the Cougars’ first-round game against Cleveland State, felt the jolt of pain buzz out of that area. To make matters worse, Baker, open off the screen, buried the 3-pointer to put UH down eight. The New Orleans native stayed down on the court for a while as the game paused for a timeout. He stayed on the UH bench when the game resumed and watched as Rutgers continued to ride the

momentum it had built. Unable to remain helpless, Jarreau checked back in and prepared to leave it all on the floor of the unity court at Lucas Oil Stadium. He made various plays that helped turn the tide in UH’s favor, from diving for a loose ball to hitting a big 3-pointer, which ultimately secured the Cougars’ win. For a national audience, it was the first look at what Jarreau’s tenacity is all about. For UH, however, it was just Jarreau displaying the leadership he had shown the entire season. “That guy is a poster child for senior leadership and for guys that have overcome obstacles,” UH assistant coach Alvin Brooks said about Jarreau recently. “He didn’t have a great year last year. The year before that, he was the sixth man of the year. It was difficult for him to navigate getting back to the level he is at now.”


Jhair Romero



Andy Yanez


James Mueller


Juana Garcia


Gerald Sastra COPY CHIEF

Zai Davis

STAFF EDITORIAL The Staff Editorial reflects the opinions of The Cougar Editorial Board (the members of which are listed above the editorial). All other opinions, commentaries and cartoons reflect only the opinion of the author. Opinions expressed in The Cougar do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Houston or the students as a whole.

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR The Cougar welcomes letters to the editor from any member of the UH community. Letters should be no more than 250 words and signed, including the author’s full name, phone number or e-mail address and affiliation with the University, including classification and major. Anonymous letters will not be published. Deliver letters to N221, University Center; e-mail them to letters@thedailycougar.com; send them via campus mail to STP 4015; or fax to (713) 743-5384. Letters are subject to editing.

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ADVERTISEMENTS Houston guard DeJon Jarreau defends Syracuse’s Quincy Guerrier during the Sweet 16 matchup at Hinkle Fieldhouse. | Photo by Getty Images

Growing pains Just a year ago, Jarreau’s path with the Cougars was at a much different place. The 6-foot-5-inch guard was debating and ultimately decided to declare for the NBA Draft in April 2020.

His announcement, came off a rough junior season, which was perfectly summed up by a hand injury he suffered a month


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Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

DeJon Jarreau (3) of the Houston Cougars looks to pass against the Oregon State Beavers in the Elite Eight round of the 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament held at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 29, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. | Photo taken by Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images


Continued from page 3 prior to the start of the 2019-20 season. The injury, along with various other factors, contributed to a dreadful shooting season, which included shooting 17.5 percent on 3-point shots, far below his average a season ago during the Cougars’ Sweet Sixteen run. Ultimately, Jarreau decided to rejoin UH for his senior season. A choice he said he always felt he was going to make despite declaring for the draft. UH head coach Kelvin Sampson, however, did not sugar coat anything for the guard. Jarreau’s performance his junior year was not at a level the program felt it needed to be, and Sampson wasn’t shy of making it known. “DeJon didn’t have a good year. He’s got to play better,” Sampson told reporters during the summer. “When he got his feedback ( from NBA draft scouts) he showed it to me. It wasn’t real pretty, but it was about what I thought. “Humility is the most important thing,” Sampson continued. “Sometimes you need to be put in your spot.” With a chip on his shoulder and an enormous bag of criticism on his back, Jarreau returned to the UH program a different player. The one most evident was the embracement of the leadership role for the team, which had

a void in that spot after guard Nate Hinton left for the NBA last summer as well. Jarreau and Sampson met together early in the year, long before the first game of the season against Lamar, and from that point on, Jarreau appeared to be ready to carry that role and the responsibility that came with it, junior guard Quentin Grimes told reporters recently.

‘Poster child’ Once the season began, it became clear to those watching that Jarreau was the engine that made the entire Cougars’ machine run. “He’s bringing our team together,” UH sophomore guard Marcus Sasser said about Jarreau during the season. “He’s just been a great leader. In practice, everybody goes off him. If he is having a good day at practice, we’re all having a good day. If he is having a bad day, we try to pick him up. He’s getting everyone involved. He’s just matured. He’s been a great leader for this team.” Along with the change in attitude, there was a clear improvement on the court as well. Jarreau had raised his averages back up, some to career-highs, and the coaching staff continued to tout about the guard. Not everything was smooth sailing, and there were still kinks that needed to be smoothed out, but as the year progressed, Jarreau only continued to get better. Once UH reached the end

of the regular season and entered the American Athletic Conference Tournament, Jarreau’s numbers began to look like a crunch wrap supreme. There was a little bit of everything on each part of the box score, and it culminated with a triple-double during the first round of the AAC Tournament against Tulane. “We’ve had to adapt to him,” Sampson said.

True leadership One of the first things that former UH guard Galen Robinson Jr. noticed about Jarreau when he first saw him was his confidence. Jarreau believed in himself, which is what Robinson liked about him, but was also something that could work against Jarreau at times. For the longest, the UH coaches tried to get Jarreau to settle down and not force things when they weren’t there. Throughout his senior season, he began to do just that. “That’s what he has learned to do. Keeping things simple,” Sampson said earlier in the season. “Sometimes he tries to be Patrick Mahomes, and we want him to be Tom Brady.” Now nearing the end of the line with the program, Robinson has seen that buy-in as well. “Seeing him kind of submit to the process, kind of take on the role and being the guy,” Robinson said. “It is something I always knew he could do. It is something coach Sampson always knew he could do. He probably didn’t

think he could do it, but he is. That is the type of guy he is. He is willing do whatever it takes. Seeing him evolve to be that leader, it is definitely a sight to see.” Jarreau’s fingerprints on the UH program extend far beyond just the court. One of the players that has been impacted the most has been freshman guard Tramon Mark, who was Jarreau’s roommate for much of the season during the team’s road games. “I’ve learned a lot from DeJon,” Mark said. “Just countless things … He is a real point guard, and he has helped me open my brain up even more when I am out there on the floor. He’s a big reason why I’ve made some of the plays I’ve been able to make.” Through his journey UH, the one thing that Jarreau has taken away has been learning to keep things simple. While it isn’t shocking, considering it was something the UH coaches drilled into him during his time here, it has extended beyond the court and into Jarreau’s life as well. “(I’m) just being myself,” Jarreau said. “Just taking what my family has taught me and just plugging it into my daily life. Just my time here, maturing and the coaching staff helping me grow up into the player I am today. The senior leadership just kind of came within. It’s something I’ve been having, and I just be myself every day.” sports@thedailycougar.com


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Final Four Special Issue (4.2.2021)  

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