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Houston was in “Complete Disarray for 35 years” Before Sampson

Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle has covered the Cougars for years. He chatted with The Fizz this week as we went behind enemy lines. Despite being the 3-seed to Syracuse’s 11-seed, it seems plenty of people are picking the Orange. “It comes with the territory of being in the American Athletic Conference,” he says. “They use that as motivation.”

The key to this program being seeded this high as it is? Clearly Kelvin Sampson. He skyrocketed through the coaching circles after he was named the Pac-10 Coach of the Year at Washington State in ’91. That led to the Oklahoma job. Winning three Big 12 titles in Norman landed him one of the best jobs in college hoops, Indiana.

But scandal swallowed him whole and he was forced to start from the bottom, leaving the college game and heading to the NBA bench. Six years of being an assistant in the league was enough to earn him another college shot at Houston. And he took over a program that was a far cry from its glory years as Phi Slamma Jamma in the ’80s with Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

The program was “in complete disarray for 35 years” before Sampson got the job. Now? They have an identity and have been to two Sweet 16’s in three years. That identity is effort and guile, with a penchant for late wins. Witness the comeback over Rutgers last weekend.

“You wonder sometimes how they pull off some of these wins…. It’s the Holy Trinity. He wants rebounding, defense, and taking care of the ball.”

If beating the 2-3 zone means aggressively attacking the glass, Houston will do that. But they’ll have to do it without traditional size down low. What will SU rebounders have to account for?

“Pure will. That’s just relentless energy.”

It’s been a long time since Coogs fans could feel this good. Their last Elite 8 was ’84. Jim Boeheim was in his 8ths season at the helm of SU. But maybe the worm has turned. “The Rutgers game turned the corner for them… They seem to be on the destiny track this year.”

Who does the SU defense need to lock down on? Quentin Grimes, the Kansas transfer. “He’s the guy that you look at to turn on a switch when he needs to… He really is the keys that start this Houston engine.”

Nothing is ever easy about SU’s March marches, especially when you reach the second weekend. We’ll see if the effort and good vibes of the Coogs are enough to topple an SU team that is riding on a magic carpet ride of its own.

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