Houston prepares for dog of a time in Big 12

photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson speaks to the media during the NCAA college Big 12 men's basketball media day Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas City, Mo. — At T-Mobile Center on Wednesday for his first Big 12 Conference media day since he left Oklahoma in 2006, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson wasted no time winning the hearts of the conference’s reporters with a protracted canine analogy.

The Big 12 head coaches had a meeting at which Sampson said he was warily sizing up his competition like a dog in a dog park.

“It used to be you could look at a few of those little dogs and go, ‘I can get that one, I can get that one, I can get that one,'” Sampson said. “I ain’t seen nobody I can get in this conference. That’s the difference. They’re all German shepherds, man.

“Where’s the Shih Tzus? Where’s the chihuahuas at? ‘Oh, that’s a Rottweiler.’ ‘Oh, my God, that’s a pit bull.’ This is a tough dog park, man.”

Sampson exited the stage soon after to the dulcet tones of the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out.”

Left unsaid in his colorful allegory, though, was the fact that his team, even as the new pooch at the park, is already one of the big dogs. A mastiff, even.

Houston was a No. 1 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament. At one point in the 2022-23 season the Cougars reached No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, too, for the first time in 39 years. They suffered an early exit against Miami in the Sweet 16 in March, but under Sampson established a standard of dominance in the American Athletic Conference and went to the Final Four in 2021.

Now they take on a new challenge in the Big 12, facing all the teams that intimidated Sampson, and will do so without several players who were key to their success, including Marcus Sasser, Jarace Walker and the late Reggie Chaney. Even so, the Cougars earned a No. 7 ranking in the preseason AP poll, and came second in the preseason Big 12 coaches’ poll behind Kansas with a pair of first-place votes — including, of course, one from KU’s Bill Self. (Coaches can’t vote for their own teams.)

“(The league) got better when Houston came in it,” Self said at the podium Wednesday. “There’s no question, from (the standpoint of) a team that could win a national championship. I’m not saying the other three (new members) can’t, but we know Houston can. Of course everybody respects what Kelvin has been able to do over time and certainly in recent memory.”

Houston returns standouts like AAC Defensive Player of the Year Jamal Shead, Most Improved Player J’Wan Roberts and former all-freshman selections Terrance Arceneaux and Emanuel Sharp. The Cougars also add LJ Cryer, a transfer from Baylor and preseason all-conference selection.

photo by: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Houston guard Jamal Shead (1) dribbles up court in first half of the second round of a college basketball game against Auburn in the NCAA Tournament in Birmingham, Ala., Saturday, March 18, 2023. Houston won 81-64.

photo by: AP Photo/Kevin M. Cox

Houston forward J’Wan Roberts (13) shoots over Wichita State forward Kenny Pohto (11) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Houston.

photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Houston’s L.J. Cryer talks to the media during the NCAA college Big 12 men’s basketball media day Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo.

It hasn’t been easy for the Big 12’s four new schools — Houston, plus BYU, Cincinnati and UCF — to make an impact in every sport. Through four weeks of conference play in football, they had just one combined win over a prior Big 12 member. They were picked for the bottom four spots in women’s basketball. Teams like BYU soccer and UCF volleyball have been the exceptions, rather than the rule.

Men’s basketball, though, should be different. KU will have to fend off an immediate contender that it really isn’t that familiar with for the title.

Even if Self vividly remembers the last time he coached against Houston.

It was in 1997 and he was in his first year at Tulsa.

“We gave up a 20-point lead when they went to a 2-3 zone in the second half and lost at home,” he said Wednesday. “And I remember the fans yelling at me as soon as I’m walking off the court, and they had every right to.”

The Golden Hurricane led 49-29 before losing 61-57 as it only converted two field goals in the final 15 minutes and 22 seconds of the game. Self called the end of the game “agonizing” at the time, per a story from the Tulsa World archives.

Much more relevant, Self says now, will be his experience with Sampson. They only overlapped for a few years in the 2000s — Self’s KU squad beat OU two of three times, both in Lawrence — but Self also has a longer-term awareness of Sampson because of Self’s deep Oklahoma roots (he grew up there and coached not just at Tulsa, but also as an assistant at Oklahoma State and head coach at Oral Roberts).

He said it won’t be hard to get his players’ attention in preparing for Houston.

“It’s going to be a great matchup, it’s going to be fun, competitive on the defensive end because they play great defense too every year,” said point guard Dajuan Harris Jr., who mentioned Cryer’s transfer in discussing the Cougars. “It’s going to be a grind-out game, I think. I know it is, actually.”

The two teams have not played since 2001. KU is 5-2 in the series, which dates back to 1967.

But they’ll undoubtedly have their fair share of dogfights, and get well acquainted very quickly. Not only do they play twice this year pretty late in the conference schedule — in Lawrence on Feb. 3, in Houston on March 9, the last day of the regular season, not to mention a possible conference-tournament matchup — they will also face off in Mexico City next season in December 2024 as part of the Big 12 Mexico initiative.


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