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In Houston’s success, Kelvin Sampson finds redemption March Madness


DALLAS — The reclamation journey of Kelvin Sampson came to an abrupt end in the NCAA tournament.

His top-seeded Houston team fell to the blue-blooded 4-seed Duke on Friday, 54-51. The Cougars were without their star guard and leading scorer Jamal Shead — who went down while driving the lane with an ankle sprain late in the first half — for most of the game.

Even without its star, Houston proved to be a tough out. It ended the season for Sampson — his 10th with the program — who was once considered too hot for major programs to touch.

Waiting for Duke in Dallas, Sunday, will be 11-seed NC State in an all-ACC South Region final and a trip to Phoenix and the Final Four on the line.

“It just wasn’t our time,” Sampson said, summing up the loss of Shead and the Sweet 16 game.

Sampson’s Cougars spent the final three weeks of the regular season ranked No. 1 in the AP top 25. The Connecticut Huskies were the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but Houston was the top seed in the South Region. They were also a 1-seed in last year’s tournament.

“It’s kind of funny watching us being ranked No. 1 in the nation,” Sampson said after the Cougars’ overtime victory over Texas A&M in the second round. “I know our fans do. But our fans don’t really know us.”

They may not really know Sampson, either. The details of his career are public: Before Houston, the 68-year-old Sampson had stints at Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana — leading the Sooners to the NCAA tournament in all but one of his 12 seasons, including the 2002 Final Four. He is 20th in coaching wins, with 764 on the NCAA’s all-time list.

But at Indiana, he was penalized for sending text messages to recruits — against NCAA rules at the time — and was forced out.

All but barred from coaching in major college, Sampson then spent six seasons as an NBA assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets. The Cougars finally came calling in 2014, and he’s resumed his previous college success. Houston has made each of the past six NCAA tournaments, reaching the Sweet 16 in the last five and the Final Four in 2021.

But fans don’t know the man behind it all. They don’t know that perhaps his favorite team since joining the Cougars was his first one. While the Cougars didn’t go to the postseason tournament that season and finished 13-19, they retain a prominent place with him, he said, because they never gave in to their relative lack of talent.

Sampson changed nothing about his recruiting or coaching methods this year when the Cougars jumped from the mid-major American Athletic Conference to the every-game stress of the Big 12. Before the season started, Sampson still gathered his players in Houston’s early morning summer humidity for their five-day-a-week workouts.

He spent his time instead wondering how the Cougars would replace their two first-round NBA draft picks, Jarace Walker and Marcus Sasser. He worked the transfer portal to pick up three players, but largely built this year’s team around returning players like guards Jamal Shead and Emanuel Sharp.

“That to me is what a coach’s job is,” Sampson said. “Just don’t recruit the best players and hope you can win. That very rarely works out. Recruit kids that are really good and develop them. Once you develop them, that means they own their skill set because if they’re not developed, that means they’re renting it. If they’re renting it, that means somebody gave it to you. It’s a lot better to own it.”

Shead said last weekend, “[Coach Sampson] only gives credit when it’s earned. He makes you work for it. He always tells us, ‘Trust your work.’ That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned here. If you put the work in he’ll give you the opportunity to show that you put that work in.

“He has the ultimate trust in us and we have the ultimate trust in him. He’s the best motivator I’ve ever been around in my life. Best coach I know in America. When a guy like that trusts you, your confidence level is through the roof.”

Houston entered the NCAA tournament coming off a 28-point loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament championship game. They scored 41 points, leaving even some of their own fans wondering about the state of the Cougars at the most important time of the season.

Sampson wasn’t among them. The Cougars don’t have a lot of depth and aren’t built to play a third game in three days — as the Iowa State game was.

He and his team merely went back to work.

“After the Iowa State game we didn’t overreact, like a lot of other people did,” Sampson said. “What we did was get back to our gym, close the doors where nobody can come in and we focused on what we had to do to get better.”

Sampson and the Cougars’ run ended late Friday night in Dallas.

He will get back to work. And the time will come again, soon, for him to get back into the gym and focus.

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