KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Kelvin Sampson is not one for hyperbole. He is erudite, thoughtful, one hell of a basketball coach. Certainly not a purveyor of hot takes.
Rewind Houston basketball nine years ago to 2014. That was Sampson’s first year with the Cougars when, by the coach’s own assessment, the program was “so Conference USA-ish.”
That year Sampson was on hand for the dedication of a new Houston football press box named after Jim Nantz’s mother. Understand that Nantz is as Houston as it gets. CBS Sports’ legendary voice of the NFL, Masters and NCAA Tournament played golf for the Cougars. Along with Fred Couples and Blaine McCallister, Nantz has endowed a basketball scholarship in perpetuity.
If wishing was power, Nantz, who is calling his last Final Four next weekend, would have had Houston in the Big 12 long ago.
But on that day in 2014 he was pulled aside by Sampson.
“Kelvin looks at me and he says, ‘I want you to know we’re going to be good again. We’re going to be contending for national championships … We can win the national championship,’ ” Nantz recalled Thursday from T-Mobile Center, site of this weekend’s Midwest Regional.
Back then it sounded absurd. Now it sounds prescient. While Nantz will be neutral this weekend here for the Midwest Regional where the Cougars are a No. 1 seed, he can’t help but be steeped in the lore of his alma mater. The nationally televised Houston-UCLA game in 1968 put not only Houston but college basketball on the map.
Guy Lewis took Houston teams to the Final Four in both 1983 and 1984.
The next step toward making Sampson’s 2014 proclamation come true is a regional semifinal matchup Friday against No. 5 seed Miami. But nine years ago, Sampson was on the rebound – six years away from the college game. He ran afoul of the NCAA at Indiana and landed in the NBA as an assistant.
When he arrived Houston had already cratered. His first team was 13-19 playing in the newly formed American Athletic Conference, two seasons removed from Conference USA.
“Not just C-USA — mid to low C-USA …,” Sampson said. “I had to change something, so I just started throwing furniture around.”
Well, figuratively at least. Super booster Tilman Fertitta bought in, paid for $60 million in upgrades to Hofheinz Pavilion. Now the Fertitta Center is home to a national power.
“I told [Fertitta], ‘You can win a national championship here,” Sampson said of his first meeting with the billionaire businessman. ‘You can’t in football. The rules are against you. They’re not going to let you. You can in basketball, but you guys have to invest.’ “
Houston (33-3) is two wins away from its second Final Four in three years. One win away from its third straight Elite Eight. Under Sampson, it long ago returned as a national power. All-American Marcus Sasser – first recipient of that Nantz scholarship — is one of the top players in the country. The carrot on the stick is a home Final Four in Houston’s NRG Stadium if the Cougars are able to make it out of Kansas City.
“I feel like we play better when the lights go on,” Houston junior forward J’Wan Roberts said. “We just know the type of the moment. We know what it takes. At this point I just feel like we got here so far, we can’t be nervous anymore. We could play in front of 100,000 people.”
T-Mobile holds 18,000. It will be the site of the next step toward whether Sampson’s 2014 proclamation comes true. Certainly, the Cougars are good enough to win it all as a No. 1 seed. Their relentless defense is a reflection of Sampson who has clawed his way to the top knowing no other way.
But despite all those accomplishments and all that history Houston has never won it all going 0-fer in six Final Four appearances.
You can feel the anticipation all the way from south Texas to the banks of the Missouri here in Kansas City.
“When you’re the team that is the host school for the Final Four and everybody’s been talking about this for a long time,” Nantz said. “I almost hesitate to put more on their shoulders by even talking about it.”
Nantz was witness in 1983 when his school lost that epic national championship game to North Carolina State. Back then he was a year and a half out of school. He paid his own way to fly to Albuquerque, New Mexico for that epic Monday night.
He had hosted Lewis’ coach’s show, been Houston’s public address announcer. Nantz hung out with Cougars before the game, walked into Albuquerque’s Pit that night without a ticket and rode the team bus back to the team hotel in tears, just like the rest of the Cougars.
“That’s how close I was to the program,” Nantz said.
The Cougars are now this close to their first national championship. They got here by hanging 50 in the second half on Auburn to win a second-round game. The 81-64 win marked the third-largest margin of victory by a team trailing by at least 10 points at halftime in tournament history. The Cougars blocked 12 shots.
“There was a breathtaking kind of [feel] about it,” Nantz said.
Sasser has returned from a groin injury. He and teammate Tramon Mark are the first Houston players to score at least 20 points in a game and shoot over 50% since Hakeem Olajuwon and Alvin Franklin in 1984.
The fifth-largest TV market in the country awaits a homecoming of a No. 1 seed.
“We’re not a team that starts thinking about next week,” Sampson said. “We’re 40 minutes away from going home. A lot of people don’t want to hear that, but they’ll get over it.”
Sooner or later.