Thursday, April 04, 2019

A great UH basketball season comes to an end

The Cougars made it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 35 years but, alas, could advance no further:
One of the best seasons in University of Houston history came down to the wire Friday night. 
After rallying from a 13-point deficit, the Cougars held the lead in the final minute only to have one of the best seasons in program history come to an end with a 62-58 loss to second-seeded Kentucky in a Midwest Region semifinal before an announced crowd of 17,385 at Sprint Center. 
Kentucky (30-6) will play fifth-seeded Auburn – a 97-80 winner over top-seeded North Carolina – on Sunday for a spot in the Final Four.
In spite of the loss, it was still an excellent season for the Coogs. They had one of the best seasons in program history, notching a 33-4 record and winning winning the American Athletic Conference regular season title. The Cougars also enjoyed multiple sellouts at their impressively-renovated arena. They made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since the Phi Slama Jama era of the early 1980s. In the Big Dance, they met the expectations of their seeding by making it to the Sweet Sixteen and came ever so close to advancing even further. People, both locally and nationally, actually care about UH basketball again. It's a far cry from just a few years ago, when the program wallowed in mediocrity, obscurity and apathy.

Going into the second weekend of the tournament, there were rumblings that the guy responsible for the resurgence of UH basketball - head coach Kelvin Sampson - may be lured away to another school, such as Arkansas. Fortunately, the (admittedly legitimate) jitters of the UH faithful were eased today as he signed a six year, $18-million contract extension which will hopefully keep him in Houston for the rest of his career; it also designates his son, Kellen, as "head coach in waiting." Jeff Balke explains why this is good for the program:
All indications are that Sampson is beloved by his players and a fine recruiter of talent. With a new building and a new contract, never mind the high profile stage of March Madness, there is reason for hope for UH fans. Given his age (63), he won't catch Lewis, but he's already the second best coach in UH history. Get a title for the Coogs and he'll have done something no one, not even Lewis and Phi Slama Jama, could muster. For now, it looks like he'll have a few more years to make it happen.
Ryan Monceaux agrees, and provides some insight into the work that Sampson has had to accomplish to bring the program back to national - let alone local - relevance:
When he was hired, Sampson knew the UH program was struggling but even he now acknowledges that it had fallen further than he had imagined. The players were soft and weren’t interested in the intense, no-nonsense new coach. Only 5 players stayed from Dickey’s last team but that wasn’t his main problem. 
“This was the hardest resuscitation (of my career) because of the facilities and the apathy,” Sampson said. 
Looking back, the situation was much worse than it seemed at the time: a few hundred fans would show up 16-18 times a year in one of the worst arenas in the country. Because of the program’s decades-long erosion, it was difficult for hardcore fans to realize how abnormal the situation had become. 
In Sampson’s first year, the announced average attendance (2,635) was the lowest in school history. Those were the tickets accounted for – including students – which is a wildly inflated number. Most nights, you could count the total attendance during a 30-second timeout.
To be sure, long-overdue physical investments in the program - the new basketball practice facility and the complete renovation of Hofheinz Pavilion into the Fertitta Center - helped tremendously. But facilities can only go so far; a program also needs a guy who can recruit talent and coach it to success. Kelvin Sampson is that guy, and the University of Houston is doing the right thing by making sure he continues to lead the program for years to come.
In 5 years with Sampson at the helm, the results speak for themselves. A program once left for dead boasts an incredible practice facility, a sparkling new arena, an AAC regular season title, and 3 NCAA Tournament wins in the last two seasons. It also has its savior for 6 more years. 
Cougar basketball is back.

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