HARTFORD, Conn. – Say this about Kelvin Sampson’s first year as head coach at Houston: he’s given reason to believe he’ll make them relevant in time. The Cougars have gone through a lot, and don’t have great talent, but he’s managed to get 13 wins out of this team, including Thursday’s win over Tulane in the first round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
The first year at a program that has struggled is tough to figure. Sometimes it’s a veteran team that can turn around some from a change, and sometimes it’s a young team that takes time to mold. Sometimes it’s a veteran team that is marginally better or gets no better because they weren’t very good to begin with. Rarely is there a wholesale change just from changing the coach in one year.
This year’s Cougar team was a mixed bag in terms of talent. They had very good talent in the likes of Baylor transfer L.J. Rose and Devonta Pollard, as well as a steadily improving talent in junior Jherrod Stiggers. They have three other junior college players (Pollard is a junior college transfer), and those are always tough to project in terms of the impact they ultimately have. Sampson got what he could after he got the job and has done what he can. On Thursday, you could hear him getting on his team to compete harder and make winning plays.
But along the way, the roster has changed dramatically. Three players have left the program. Rose missed significant time at the beginning and end of the season with injuries. Bertrand Nkali has missed the entire season due to a sports hernia. Mikhail McLean missed the first five games of the season recovering from foot surgery and then broke a bone in his foot in practice early last month. Wes VanBeck missed seven games due to a hip injury, but is playing. What it all adds up to is the Cougars coming to Hartford with seven scholarship players.
“When you have only seven guys on scholarship, they tend to come together a little bit,” said Sampson.
And as if that’s not enough, before long Sampson will already be working for his second athletic director, as Mack Rhoades is leaving to succeed the retiring Mike Alden at Missouri.
Houston has proven to be a dangerous team. They won at Murray State in their season opener, and they beat UConn in early February. They shot nearly 48 percent from the field on Thursday night and out-rebounded Tulane 36-27. Now, they have won four games in a row, a sign that they have indeed come together. It makes sense: at this point, Sampson has the players who want to be there and who have managed to stay healthy, and they have now played together for a while.
Sampson will tell you this isn’t a very skilled team, and that’s evident. With Rose out, they lack a point guard, though Stiggers has done an admirable job trying to be serviceable in that respect. Stiggers had a big part in the win on Thursday, going 7-12 from the field en route to 23 points, as did Cavon Baker, who can be the ultimate X-factor. Baker had 20 points on 6-7 shooting in 12 minutes, including a big stickback dunk that helped snuff out a Tulane rally.
The Cougars won’t become contenders instantly, and Sampson has preached patience all along. It’s been a long time since they’ve won an NCAA Tournament game, even though that’s a goal. This season is a transition year in the truest sense of the word, and that has included the roster being in a state of transition often. Sampson has been able to get a lot out of this team, and it’s enough to be dangerous against Tulsa on Friday, a team on the NCAA Tournament bubble for whom a loss may be a knockout blow.