Kelvin Sampson Is Helping Houston Basketball Turn the Corner

Posted by Nate Kotisso on January 13th, 2016

Kelvin Sampson walked into a postgame press conference last week and strangely had difficulty getting his words out. He appeared to be fighting a toothache or something like that, but he quickly explained himself. “I put a Tootsie Roll in my mouth,” Sampson said, smirking. “That was a bad idea.” As he puts together another college hoops reclamation project — this time at Houston — Sampson can’t help but feel relaxed enough to pop in a Tootsie Roll before a press conference. His Cougars had just finished off Tulane before 3,235 fans at Hofheinz Pavilion to move to 13-2 on the year. It was yet another easy win in the career of a coach who has tallied a lot of them, but it wasn’t always this easy.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson watches his Cougars rack up another home victory over Tulane. Houston improved to 10-0 at home. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle)

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson watches his Cougars rack up another home victory over Tulane. Houston is now 10-0 at home. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle)

Sampson’s inaugural season at Houston in 2014-15 was predictably difficult. The Cougars went 13-19, good for a 10th place finish in the 11-team American. Many of their issues centered on a lack of consistent scoring (64.4 points per game — 234th nationally). During the offseason, Sampson was scouring the transfer market to improve his team’s scoring when he stumbled upon Rob Gray, Jr., a shooting guard from Howard College. Gray was in the midst of winding down his recruitment process and had just enjoyed dinner with then-Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall and his coaching staff on March 26. The next morning, Tyndall was fired by Tennessee. Sampson quickly pounced on the opening and got Gray to commit to an official visit before signing him in mid-April.

Gray now leads the Cougars in scoring (18.6 PPG) and ranks third on the team in three-point shooting (37.8%). Damyean Dotson, a Houston native, spent two seasons as a starter at Oregon. In 2014, Dotson was one of three now former Oregon players who were at the center of a sexual assault accusation at an off-campus party. Despite the Eugene Police Department and Lane County (OR) District Attorney deciding there was not enough evidence to press charges, Dotson, along with teammates Dominic Artis and Brandon Austin, were suspended and subsequently dismissed from the program. (Oregon officials never publicly addressed the reason for suspending Dotson, Artis, and Austin.) Over the next year, Dotson took classes at Houston Community College and stayed in basketball shape under the watchful eye of former NBA player and coach John Lucas. In addition to becoming a scoring threat for Houston this season, Dotson came into last week’s game third on the team in scoring (12.6 PPG) and three-point shooting (37.5%) as well as leading the team in rebounds per game (7.4 RPG). Purdue transfer Ronnie Johnson signed with Houston five weeks after Sampson took the job in April 2014. The ex-Boilermaker starter is having his best season as a collegian, scoring (11.9 PPG) and shooting (40% from three) well in a significant reserve role.

Houston guard LeRon Barnes was a menace on the boards, grabbing 14 rebounds in 23 minutes off the bench. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle)

Houston guard LeRon Barnes was a menace on the boards, grabbing 14 rebounds in 23 minutes off the bench. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle)

There’s still plenty on which Houston can improve, especially on the defensive end. According to KenPom, their adjusted defensive efficiency ranks 145th in the country. That number is up from last season (181st), but it still represents a long way to go toward major-program competence. Whether the Cougars find consistent play from their bigs will be a major key as well. Senior Devonta Pollard (14.1 PPG) has not been counted on as much as he was a season ago because of another transfer, junior Kyle Meyer, who has eaten into some of his minutes.

With the regional buzz that Houston football created by winning 13 games, an AAC Championship and a Peach Bowl victory over Florida State this year, it’s no surprise that the basketball team saw an opportunity to put together a memorable season of their own. Time will tell on that question, but the basketball Cougars have already won the same number of games as last season and have started league play unbeaten through three games for the first time since the 2007-08 season. Houston’s win over LSU in December is also paying dividends as the Tigers have improved after a shaky early season start. Temple, Houston’s second conference win, now owns road victories at league contenders Cincinnati and Connecticut. Things appear to finally be turning around for Houston basketball.

And if you’re Kelvin Sampson, that’s pretty sweet.

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