INDIANAPOLIS — Nearly 20 years have passed since Kelvin Sampson last climbed a ladder at an NCAA tournament regional and snipped a net to go to a Final Four.
Over those two decades, Sampson has been atop the coaching profession, shrouded in NCAA infamy and rejuvenated by a hitch in the NBA. He bristles at the notion of his journey being some kind of redemption story, but his full circle from 2002 Final Four to 2021 Final Four encapsulates a dizzying gamut of emotions.
In the wake of No. 2 Houston’s 67-61 clubbing of No. 12 Oregon State to clinch that Final Four bid, Sampson’s 19-year coda is complete. It’s only fitting, of course, that Sampson’s latest moment of glory comes 53 miles from his professional low.
The presence of Sampson in the Final Four in Indiana ramps up both the tension and star power of a Final Four that’s quickly filling with local storylines. In some ways, this inevitably blue blood-less Final Four is the perfect place for Sampson, who has prided himself on his bootstrap roots, to reintroduce himself on the sport’s biggest stage.
"We did it brick by brick," Sampson said of his rebuild of Houston. "We weren’t in a hurry. We didn’t try and cut any corners."
And don’t be surprised if these Cougars can bully their way to two more victories, as the blunt-force defensive nature that’s always defined Sampson’s best teams has an offensive complement. This Houston team can also score in bursts, as it raced out to a 17-point lead on Oregon State on Monday night and has the nation’s No. 8 offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. (That 2002 Final Four team ranked No. 77 and shot 2-for-18 in the Final Four to lose to Indiana. Of course, Indiana.)
Sampson, 65, has reinvented himself back to a better version of the coach who’d risen among the game’s elite when he left Oklahoma for Indiana in 2006. After his forced resignation from IU in 2008, mostly involving impermissible phone calls to recruits, much has been made of his sudden career crash. Especially because of the zip codes surrounding Lucas Oil Stadium.
But what this Houston team represents is the collective wisdom from Sampson’s climb back and it arrived in his 1,000th game as a head coach in college. He went on to the NBA for six full seasons while waiting out his five-year show-cause penalty and got an education from everyone from Gregg Popovich, Mike Budenholzer, Brett Brown, Scott Skiles and Kevin McHale. He learned new ways to guard middle ball screens, better ways to space the floor and got a graduate degree in analytics from the Rockets. It’s no coincidence that one of the biggest shots came on a corner 3-pointer by Quentin Grimes.
I asked Sampson once how he’d have responded if I’d asked him about analytics back in the early 2000s. “You’re just wasting wood,” he laughed.
Now, he’s got a team that’s both marauding and only occasionally begs for a new offensive coordinator like some of those old Oklahoma teams.
The quintessential Sampson player is DeJon Jarreau, a 6-foot-5 senior with short shorts and long arms who put forth as elite back-to-back defensive performances as we’ve seen in the NCAA tournament during this generation.
Jarreau harassed Oregon State star Ethan Thompson into 3-for-12 shooting and 11 points, nearly five below his average. That came on the heels of blanketing Syracuse star Buddy Boeheim in the Sweet 16, hounding him into 3-for-13 shooting. Both entered this weekend as among the country’s hottest players. They left dazed and confused, as Thompson’s turnover with 47.4 seconds left came when he attempted to arm bar Jarreau for space, fell down and then Jarreau dove on top of him to force a jump-ball turnover.
That came with Houston clinging to a five-point lead with 47.4 seconds remaining. And that cemented that Houston’s path to the Final Four would be the easiest in NCAA history, as it became the first team to beat four double-digit seeds to get there — No. 15 Cleveland State, No. 10 Rutgers, No. 11 Syracuse and the No. 12 Beavers.
"It’s all about the players," Sampson said. "It’s all about them. This memory will last them a lifetime. They’ll tell their grandchildren about this."
But that easy path came the hard way on Monday. Oregon State rushed all the way back from a 17-point deficit to tie the game at 55 with 3:46 remaining. Grimes hit a 3-pointer to help solve Oregon State’s 1-3-1 zone and from there, Houston grabbed five offensive rebounds on the next three possessions to help seal the game.
“Sometimes you can’t be afraid to fail,” Sampson said. “You can’t be afraid to make a shot. You can’t be afraid to miss a shot, either.”
Sampson could say the same about his road back.
This is a profession built for those with scar tissue. It’s luring amateurs to play amid a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, cutting deals with grassroots coaches and leveraging booster power to strengthen your program. It’s neither important to forgive or admonish Sampson for his sins. Nor would it be right to ignore them.
And it’s hard to imagine anyone would after getting to stick around for a third week in the state that he left shrouded in ignominy 13 years ago.
This marked Sampson’s 667th win as a college coach. He likes to joke when people ask how old he is that he’s 11 years younger than Jim Boeheim. And it’s hard not to imagine him lined up with Boeheim, Calhoun, Pitino, Calipari and plenty of other Hall of Fame college coaches with some highly publicized off-court issues that they endured.
When Sampson took the Houston job in 2014, his old boss at Oklahoma, Joe Castiglione, sent him a ladder to store in his office. He kept it there as a reminder and an inspiration, that the best moments in coaching come when climbing a ladder as a team. “Anyone could send a congratulatory basket or a plant,” Castiglione said via text on Monday night. “The ladder itself was a symbol of success.”
All these years later, Kelvin Sampson’s two stars on that 2002 OU team – Hollis Price and Quannas White – are his assistants. His son Kellen, who ended up walking on at OU, is another assistant. One generation later, Sampson is thriving with familiar faces and evolved methods.
Kelvin Sampson’s climb back continues next weekend, a three-week local torment to Indiana fans of what wasn’t for them — in the same week they made a new coaching hire, Mike Woodson, that was greeted with a collective yawn.
Sampson will be cast this week as both a comeback hero and an interloping villain. But in reality, he’s carried the trait of so many other elite coaches in both this profession and tournament — he’s survived and advanced.
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