The first thing you should know about Houston’s men’s basketball team: At this point, not even the players are buying their own hype.
Yes, the Cougars are aware that the No. 5 parked to the left of their name brings about said hype—it’s just that eight games into a pandemic-controlled season isn’t exactly the litmus test for greatness.
“The number gives you the target, but the target doesn’t mean you deserve it,” junior guard Quentin Grimes says. “Gotta earn that. We just know we have work to do.”
So, no, Grimes and Co. didn’t view Tuesday night’s 65–64 loss at unranked Tulsa, a team they shared the American Athletic Conference regular-season title with last season, as an upset. Instead, it was a wake-up call for a team that has been emotionally drained by COVID-19 to a degree that few teams can relate.
Recently, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson revealed that every player on his 15-man roster and some of his coaching staff have tested positive for the virus at some point this year.
Grimes was one of the first players to contract it in June and said that from playing the “what-if” game over the possibility of mild symptoms turning severe to the loneliness of quarantining to being away from the game they love, the mental toll is mind-numbing for players.
“It’s hard to explain what that feels like,” Grimes says. “I talked a lot of my teammates through it when they had it, just reassuring them that they were gonna be cool since I had experienced it already. It’s one of those things where you appreciate when someone can know what you went through, and that’s what I think we have that most teams don’t.”
Still, Cougars guard Caleb Mills was quick to point out that the shared experience of having COVID-19 isn’t the thing that made he and his teammates a close-knit family—it only enhanced their bond.
The Cougars returned their core from last year’s AAC regular-season title team, one that marked the first time since 1984—the end of the Phi Slama Jama era—that Houston won consecutive regular-season conference titles.
“We were already a family and we had great chemistry,” says Mills. “This is something that we all went through, so it’s just another way for us to all relate. We took care of each other and checked on each other the whole time. That’s what brothers do.”
Sampson never contracted the virus, but his son and assistant coach, Kellen Sampson, tested positive and had a “rough couple of days,” according to Kelvin Sampson.
“We’re all blessed to be here,” says Kelvin Sampson. “The perspective for me comes from 340,000 Americans dying and counting. I’m not a politician nor do I get influenced by them, but I listen to our health experts. Having gone through what we’ve been through, it’s important to be thorough.”
To that end, Sampson organized a Zoom with each player’s parents in August and had team doctors present “step-by-step in great detail” how they were going to take care of their sons.
“I would want to know that as a parent,” Sampson said. “There’s an added layer of responsibility for coaches at all levels. This thing is real, and we have to treat it that way.”
Grimes said he and his teammates have a healthy respect for the severity of the virus, and “move accordingly” as a result.
“You’ve always gotta wear your mask,” says Grimes. “Just gotta make sure you’re not going to places where they’re not wearing masks or coming into contact with people that go out all the time. We just have to be cautious because we have a chance to do something special.”
It certainly helps to have a full stable, a luxury the Cougars enjoyed for the first time this season during the shootaround for the Tulsa game.
The loss to the Golden Hurricanes was Houston’s fourth game in nine days. The Cougars had a 15-day pause this month due to COVID-19 concerns, and four games were either postponed or canceled during that stretch.
They travel to SMU on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.
“It’s been a crazy year,” says Grimes. “The part that people don’t talk about is the time it takes guys to get back into game shape after COVID. The good thing for us is that we’re just different when it comes to how hard we work, so it doesn’t feel like anything extra. We know we have a target, even after the Tulsa game, but we’d rather have the hype in the spring, we’ll build on it after that.”