Houston is arguably the most surprising team this season in college basketball. UH is off to a school-record 15-0 start, Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson has never had a better mark through this point in the season and, at 63, sounds energized but settled with the powerhouse he's built in the AAC.
"I used to think 63 was old," Sampson said with a laugh this week.
Sampson cites his team's success to the contributions from the upperclassmen on his roster including incredible senior leadership from Corey Davis, Galen Robinson and Breaon Brady. The old guys are unheralded program-changers.
"They are what I want senior leaders to be," Sampson said. "They couldn't care less about statistics or any of that stuff that will grab teams by the throat. ... We don't have any knuckleheads. We don't deal with -- knock on wood -- discipline issues. These kids are on time, they stay late, always in the coaches' office watching film. I told them, 'I want you to be addicted to getting better. I don't want you to be addicted to winning.'"
Sampson, who is two wins away from 600, has taken a journey few of his contemporaries can match. Sampson's coaching career started at Michigan State in 1979-80, the season after Magic Johnson departed. Two years later, Sampson was the coach at Montana Tech. Stints at Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana would eventually follow over the decades. He infamously lost the IU gig in 2008 due to NCAA infractions: telecommunications violations, mostly, that no longer even exist in the rulebook.
Sampson has been at Houston since 2014 (while under show-cause penalty from the NCAA he spent time as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets). His hoops acumen is doubted by essentially no one. And with Houston's strong start and the potential to make back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for -- yes, it's true -- the first time since Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler were wearing UH unis, it's quite possible Sampson's name could come up for the UCLA job, if not other high-profile gigs that could open in March.
But Sampson may not be ready to blast off from Houston.
"I want this to be my final stop," Sampson told CBS Sports of staying at UH.
It might not be a platitude. The past two years have been crazy behind the scenes for this program.
You could, and Sampson does, point to the relative hardships Houston endured a season ago to see why it's this good now. First there was Hurricane Harvey and the aftermath/damage that storm did to the region. The university, and its men's basketball program, was one of the biggest catalysts for relief efforts in the area. But that was just the start of it. Houston for far too long was playing in a horrible home venue. Hofheinz Pavilion was dilapidated and outdated by at least two decades. It got so bad that, if it was raining hard enough, half the court wasn't usable for practice because the water would leak through the ceiling.
For years, no one did anything about it.
"There wasn't any kind of investment here in basketball," Sampson said. "It was like nobody cared."
Sampson convinced the administration what needed to be done, but that created another issue. Last season, as Hofheinz transformed to Fertitta, Houston was forced to play and practice at Texas Southern. They'd load up numerous vans with gear and medical equipment, weave through Houston, unload, then head back. Some days they'd walk in and see the baseball team practicing inside. Or the softball team. Or volleyball. Or, of course, either of TSU's basketball teams. It was Texas Southern's campus, after all, so those teams rightfully took precedent on some days. Sampson and his team had to sometimes cancel practices or game-day shootarounds because of scheduling conflicts.
And on game days when they did have shootarounds? That meant driving from UH to Texas Southern, then packing everything up and driving back to UH -- only to return later on in the day or night to play a game. And still, the Cougars never lost a "home" contest at Texas Southern. It's now at a college-hoops-best 28 straight home wins.
"No complaints, we're going to suck it up," Sampson said. "I don't take this for granted. I have a lot of humility for where we're at and what we're doing. And when I look back, you know what I say? Those were good days."
And now look: The Cougars have overhauled facilities, play in a shiny, renovated Fertitta Center, haven't lost a home game since 2017 and are ranked higher than they've been in decades.
Remarkably, despite losing stud Rob Gray and three other seniors, Houston is rating as a better team this season. Yet it's not nearly as experienced. Last season's team, a No. 6 seed, had good shooting off the bench, an elite pick-and-roll player in Gray and a high-level baseline scorer in Devin Davis. This team doesn't have any of that. Still Houston is 15-0 with road wins at BYU and Oklahoma State in addition to home victories over top-50 KenPom teams Oregon, LSU and Utah State.
"For this team, it's kind of like playing a hand of poker," Sampson said. "They deal you the cards, you pick them up, look at them and say, 'Here's what I got' and figure out where to go from there."
It's been aces, mostly, this season. Now, a tough game at Temple awaits Wednesday night.
The three remaining unbeatens are no fluke; Sampson's Cougars have that 28-game home win streak. Their last loss? Vs. Michigan in the NCAAs, courtesy of Jordan Poole. The Wolverines -- get this -- are 29-1 in their last 30. As for the other unbeaten, Virginia, the Wahoos are an are-you-serious 36-2 in their last 38.
What are the chances any of them run the regular-season table? Almost none. CBS Sports data analyst Stephen Oh ran the figures. His simulations offered up these percentages on finishing the regular-season undefeated:
- Houston (16 games): 0.9%
- Michigan (16 games): 0.3%
- Virginia (17 games): 0.1%
As for the chances Nevada and Duke, a pair of one-loss teams, don't lose again:
- Nevada (16 games): 3.1%
- Duke (18 games): 2.2%
"For Duke to be 2.2 percent over two more games than UVA or Michigan is very impressive," Oh said. "The average per-game win percentage for Duke the rest of the way is 82.5 with the three closest games being at UVA (46.9 percent), at Virginia Tech (52.1), at UNC (65.1)."
The road game against Virginia is the only time Duke is losing more often than winning simulations. Yow.
Star players whose draft stock is shifting
We're nearing the halfway point of college basketball's season. With a lot of game inventory, there're draft prospects bopping about. NBA scouts, general managers and other stat analyzers keep their big boards in flux month-by-month at this point in the season. Thus: most mock drafts look different now vs. early October. Plenty of guys have remained fairly static, but more than a handful have been yo-yoing.
Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech: Big riser, as the sophomore wing has propelled Texas Tech to a way-better-than-expected season. He's gone from sleeper NBA pick to a guy that's being considered in the top 10. Culver's performed as one of the five best all-around players in college basketball.
Jaxson Hayes, Texas: Physical model who is making scouts salivate over his athletic ceiling as a defensive guy and rim-runner for 10-plus years in the league. Hayes isn't a basketball lifer, so there's a lot to untap still. He's been an encouraging aspect on a Texas team that's been wobbly. First-rounder, yes.
Ja Morant, Murray State: Could be the next Damian Lillard. As in: all-around combo guard who distributes, shoots well, comes from a small conference and winds up going in the top six picks. Morant is leading the NCAA in assists, has been poised and physically impressive against major-conference teams he's played this season and passes almost all the eye and stat tests. He has no business falling out of the top 12.
Grant Williams, Tennessee: Williams is a viable frontrunner for player of the year. As Synergy Sports pointed out recently, Williams is the most efficient commonly used post player in major college basketball. Williams is an old-school talent but is such a force and such a smart player that I think it would be idiocy if he wasn't picked in June.
Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga: It's been a humongous season so far for Clarke, who at times has been Gonzaga's most valuable player. The athletic freak has put himself in the draft conversation and stands to help his cause furthermore if Gonzaga can make a deep run in the NCAAs against teams much better than most of the competition GU will play over the next nine weeks in the WCC.
Talen Horton-Tucker, Iowa State: First-round chatter. I'm not all the way there yet with THT as the pro prospect some scouts and draft analysts view him as right now, but it's undeniable he's in a better spot today vs. where he was projected in the preseason. He's also been, from the start, a top-10 frosh in college hoops.
Tre Jones, Duke: Jones wasn't viewed as a surefire first-rounder a few months back. Now? He's tracking similarly to his brother, Tyus, who helped guide Duke to the 2014-15 championship. Speaking of Tyus Jones, he leads the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio (6.26). So how about this: Tre leads the ACC in the same category (5.93) and is third in the sport. Jones will be a first rounder if he opts to leave, and I can't help but think his brother's success in Minnesota will be a factor. (Perhaps it should.)
Dedric Lawson, Kansas: Lawson's a volume player, but he's proving to be so consistent and reliable and necessary for Kansas that it would be ridiculous if he wasn't drafted in 2019. He's nowhere near lottery material, but the athleticism, rebounding and space awareness will help him now and in preseason workouts.
Tyus Battle, Syracuse: Battle's moving down from where he was pegged (25-35) in early October. The Syracuse senior is shooting worse from the foul line, better from 2-point range and is about the same (only 32.7 percent) from 3-point range. When you factor he's going to be a year older from when he almost declared, right or wrong, he's going to get nudged.
Bol Bol, Oregon: His college career started well but ended miserably, as Bol is done due to foot surgery. His stock is as tough to pinpoint at this stage as anyone. Maybe he goes as high as No. 9 or No. 10, maybe he falls to the No. 27-30 range. The foot injury is going to cause some teams to pass.
Cam Reddish, Duke: Reddish has been a disappointment vs. his hype in the preseason. That's the reality. Some still view him as a top-five pick, but I think it's fair to say he's come nowhere close to validating all the talk with Duke having the top three picks in the 2019 NBA Draft. Unless Reddish starts taking over and hitting more than 48 percent of his 2-pointers (he's at 40.4 percent), he'll wait 10-30 minutes in the green room after Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett get their names called.
Udoka Azubuike, Kansas: Would have been a top-10 pick 25 years ago, is now out for the remainder of the season due to a wrist injury. Whereas he was flirting in first-round territory at one point, Azubuike is going to probably be forced to come back for his senior season and prove a ton.
Quentin Grimes, Kansas: Grimes was viewed as a lottery talent on opening night, but he's been inconsistent since and is now more of a second-round possibility. He's got the NBA body, skill and shooting potential to work back into the top 20. But at this point a lot of the shine is off.
Jalen Hudson, Florida: The biggest dropper of any projected NBA pick from the offseason. Florida's wing has hit an inexplicable funk, sinking from 15.5 points on 40.4 percent 3-point shooting a season ago, to 6.7 points, 24.0-percent from 3-point range and just 17 minutes per game. He's just not a draftable player anymore.
Have a question, curiosity or complaint? Do @ me. Lob your question my way on Twitter.
For the next Court Report or podcast:— Cody Gross (@CodyTGross) January 4, 2019
Rank the PAC12, MWC and WCC in order based on the number of NCAA Tournament bids each conference receives.
(Is the WCC going to be the conference out West with the most teams in the dance?)
1. Pac-12: it will match the WCC in bids and wind up rating as the stronger league because that's where it stands now. But ...
2. WCC: The West Coast Conference will boast the only national championship contender between those two leagues (Gonzaga). I also think San Francisco will make the NCAA Tournament. Each conference sends two.
3. Mountain West: The once-proud MW has Nevada and not much more. I expect the Wolf Pack to get the auto bid -- and Utah State has an outside chance of being the bid thief. At-large? I wouldn't count on it.
...@GaryParrishCBS @MattNorlander Odds the SoCon gets more bids than the Pac 12 this year??— Sam Wilson (@SamWilsonMU2010) January 3, 2019
More? Extremely low. Like 1 percent. If that. Matching the Pac-12 with two bids isn't insane, though. And I'd love to see Furman and Wofford both worm their way in.
@MattNorlander what do you think of the corruption trial coming up in February and April? I feel like some of the head coaches will get axed in the offseason like Sean Miller & Will Wade. What are your thoughts about this?— Will Ward (@15_will) January 1, 2019
Well, the February trial still seems set to go. That's the one with former Auburn assistant Chuck Person. But the April trial? I don't think that one will transpire. Two of the three assistants charged and previously scheduled to attend federal court have struck plea deals with the government. First it was former USC assistant Tony Bland, then, on Monday, former Arizona assistant Book Richardson. The only one left is former Oklahoma State coach Lamont Evans. Absent an April trial, the NCAA could be left wanting (for more corroboration in court). I don't believe we will see another head coach fired as a result of this FBI probe or subsequent NCAA inquiry.
- Keeping tabs on the Fred Hoiberg situation: He told ESPN this week that he absolutely prefers coaching to front-office work, and did not offer up a preference on college vs. NBA. Hoiberg is presumably going to be a target to take over the Minnesota Timberwolves. An industry source tells me Hoiberg is still a prime candidate for UCLA.
- Houston and Michigan are detailed above in how good they've been, but you know what school matches them as of today for the most wins? It's 15-1 North Texas. Granted, three of those Ws have come against non-Division-I teams, but Grant McCasland has the Mean Green off to their best start in school history. C-USA is fighting for two bids.
- St. John's got another 30-point performance out of Shamorie Ponds in the Johnnies' OT win at Georgetown over the weekend. Ponds is one of seven players to hit the 30-point threshold at least four times this season. The leader in that category has been a mainstay on our Frosh Watch from the beginning. Here's the list: Antoine Davis, Detroit (7); Chris Clemons, Campbell (5); Justin Wright-Foreman, Hofstra (5); Mike Daum, South Dakota State (4); Bubba Parham, VMI (4); Shamorie Ponds, St. John's (4); Grant Riller, Charleston (4).
- Let's talk dunks. You might think Zion Williamson is among the most frequent thrower-downers, but you'd be wrong. UCLA's Moses Brown (50) has the most dunks in college hoops at the moment and figures to run away with the claim. Williamson is nearly 20 back of Brown. He's got almost no shot of catching the 7-foot-1 Bruin.
- OK, I needed to pass this along. Texas Tech coach Chris Beard is doing these "fireside chats." I don't know why. They're random. They're offbeat. But I want more. Beard has a lot more personality than most realize. He invited the students on the court on Tuesday night to sing, after beating Oklahoma, and it was in part a culmination of his pitch from this video.
No fluff here. Just 🔥 from @CoachBeardTTU and @CoachLefevre in this week's #FiresideChat previewing our 🏀 game against @OU_MBBall on Tuesday here in Lubbock! #4To1— Texas Tech Basketball (@TexasTechMBB) January 8, 2019
I normally save this final section for just one picture, but Lance King of Getty Images did a great job capturing a five-photo progression of Zion Williamson's absurd 360-degree dunk in the Clemson game over the weekend. Any of these make for a great poster, but I think the fourth one is best.