Houston’s Men’s Basketball Team Reaches No. 1 This Season For First Time Since 1983

Houston’s Men’s Basketball Team Reaches No. 1 This Season For First Time Since 1983

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson calls during halftime of an NCAA college basketball game … [+] vs. Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Erin Edgerton)

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In April 2014, the University of Houston hired Kelvin Sampson as its men’s basketball coach. The move was significant as Sampson had not coached in college since February 2008, when he resigned under pressure from Indiana for violating NCAA rules regarding illegal calls to recruits.

However, the Houston job was not as glamorous as the Indiana position when Sampson took over. Now, however, Sampson has changed the perception of Houston and brought the Cougars back to national prominence for the first time since the Phi Slama Jama days of the mid-1980s.

In late November, Houston was ranked first in the Associated Press poll for the first time since February 28, 1983, a team that featured future Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

After a 71-65 loss to Alabama on Dec. 10, Houston dropped to fifth in the AP poll. But the Cougars (16-1) haven’t lost since and were once again the no. 1 on Monday, collecting a total of 1,457 points and 34 first-place votes. They are ahead of No. 2 Kansas (14-1), which had 1,440 points and 22 first-place votes, and No. 3 Purdue (15-1), which had 1,386 points and the other four first-place votes.

Houston’s place at the top of the rankings is a testament to Sampson, who took over a founding program.

Before Sampson arrived, the Cougars had made the NCAA Tournament just four times in the last 30 years, losing in the first round each time. They had last won an NCAA tournament game in 1984 when they lost in the tournament championship game for the second straight season.

That’s not to say Sampson was an overnight sensation. Houston did not enter the NCAA until its fourth season in 2018, but since then the Cougars have advanced to the tournament every season except for 2020 when the event was canceled due to COVID-19.

In 2021, the Cougars advanced to the Final Four for the first time in 37 years. They followed that up with an Elite Eight appearance last year even after freshman guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark suffered season-ending injuries in December.

This season, Houston was third in the AP preseason poll, the highest preseason ranking since the Cougars were second prior to the 1967-68 season. That optimism was based on the fact that Sasser and Mark are back and healthy and the Cougars added two talented freshmen in forward Jarace Walker and guard Terrance Arceneaux. Walker was 11th and Arceneaux was 40th in the 247Sports Composite rankings for the 2022 high school class.

Sasser, a preseason AP first-team All-American, leads the Cougars with 15.8 points per game. The rest of the starting lineup consists of Walker, who is averaging 10.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game; Mark, who is averaging 10.1 points per game; forward J’Wan Roberts, who is averaging 9.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game; and guard Jamal Shead, who is averaging 7.5 points and 5.2 assists per game.

Unlike other schools that have relied on transfers, Houston has built a winner through stellar recruiting and development. In fact, the Cougars’ top nine scorers all enrolled at the school out of high school.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Houston is No. 1 in analyst Ken Pomeroy’s rating. The Cougars are second in adjusted defensive efficiency and 10th in adjusted offensive efficiency, joining Connecticut and Kansas as the only schools ranked in the top 10 in each of those categories.

The Cougars return to action Wednesday night against South Florida at the Fertitta Center on campus, which is almost always sold out for Houston games. They are averaging more than 7,300 fans per home game this season, up from the arena’s capacity of 7,035 and up from 2,635 in Sampson’s first season.

Houston is favored to win the remaining 14 games of the regular season, according to KenPom. That’s largely due to the Cougars’ talent, as well as the fact that Houston plays in the American Athletic Conference, which is ranked eighth in KenPom’s league rankings.

Beginning next season, Houston will be part of the Big 12 Conference, KenPom’s top-rated league for the second year in a row and the eighth time in the last 10 years. The Cougars will then regularly face the top 25 teams in the league. It will be a tougher schedule than now, but with Sampson at the helm, Houston should rise to the challenge and contend for conference and NCAA titles.

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