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Back in Indiana, Kelvin Sampson Rises Again as Houston Moves on to Final Four

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INDIANAPOLIS — He’s still here, Indiana. Your guy, Kelvin Sampson. Still winning in your backyard. Now headed back to the Final Four.

It’s quite a feel-good story for Sampson’s endlessly gritty Houston Cougars, who haven’t advanced this far since Phi Slama Jama was an active fraternity some 37 years ago. It’s quite a feel-bad story for Indiana University fans who hold Sampson in the same regard as identity thieves and tax cheats. What is redemptive to one fan base can be revolting to another.

Sampson left this state in 2008 in disgrace and has returned in 2021 in glory, this run coinciding with his former school wallowing in extended mediocrity and changing coaches yet again. Monday began with Mike Woodson being introduced to tepid approval at IU, and 11 hours later Sampson was waving a regional championship net over his head in Lucas Oil Stadium. The juxtaposition lands like a ton of Indiana limestone.

Houston’s easy-then-hard, 67–61 regional final victory over Oregon State was Sampson’s 1,000th game as a college head coach, and going into it he’d won 666 of them. That’s both an impressive number and, perhaps, a fitting number to the locals. To use the operative phrase of March, Kelvin has survived and advanced.

Houston basketball coach Kelvin Sampson celebrates his team's win against Oregon State.

The guy was supposed to be cutting down net for the Hoosiers, not Houston. But that all fell apart when he was fired in the latter stages of that 2007–08 season—one that held immense promise before dissolving in a pile of NCAA violations. The rules Sampson and his staff broke were picayune in hindsight and are no longer on the books: impermissible recruiting phone calls. But they were the rules of the time, and not only did Sampson break them, he had already gotten in trouble for violating the same bylaws in his previous job at Oklahoma.

Sampson arrived at IU in the spring of 2006, and shortly thereafter he was barred from calling recruits and making off-campus recruiting trips for a year for the Oklahoma violations. "I have learned an invaluable lesson, and I hope that this reinforces to other coaches the importance of every aspect of NCAA compliance," Sampson said in an IU statement at the time of the initial sanctions.

The statement ranks among the most bogus in the history of the sport, because Sampson brazenly doubled down on the same violations as coach of the Hoosiers. That was an intolerable offense for a school that prided itself on playing by the rules throughout Bob Knight’s run. He was fired, players fled the program, and Indiana was plunged into a massive rebuilding hole.

Sampson paid a price, receiving a five-year show-cause penalty from the NCAA in 2008. He actually was out of the college game for six years, exiled to an assistant coach role in the NBA before landing the Houston job in 2014. He was hired by athletic director Mack Rhoades, now at Baylor, and the Bears will be the Cougars’ Final Four opponent Saturday.

It has turned out to be a sensationally successful second chance for Sampson. Or maybe third chance. When you’re this good, you get more chances.

This is Sampson’s sixth straight 20-win season, and his fourth straight season of single-digit defeats. The record in these last four: 111–23. His Houston teams have played like his vintage Oklahoma teams did in the 1990s and 2000s, relentless defensively and on the backboard. The tough stuff is their expertise.

If any single season stands out as Sampson’s coaching masterpiece, this is it. Three 2020 starters were lost unexpectedly: Fabian White tore an ACL in the spring; Nate Hinton turned pro after his sophomore season; and then 2020 leading scorer Caleb Mills transferred eight games into this season.

Houston never blinked. The Cougars went 21–3 in the regular season, rolled through the American Athletic Conference tournament and were given a No. 2 NCAA tournament seed. That’s when fortune intervened on their behalf.

After defeating No. 15 seed Cleveland State in the opening round, the Midwest Region bracket fell apart at their feet. They played No. 10 seed Rutgers in the second round, not No. 7 Clemson. They played No. 11 seed Syracuse in the third round, not No. 3 West Virginia or No. 6 San Diego State. And then they drew No. 12 Oregon State, with No. 1 Illinois, No. 4 Tennessee and No. 5 Oklahoma State long gone. This is the first time a team has ever played nothing but double-digit seeds on the way to the Final Four.

Oregon State spent about 31 minutes playing very much like a No. 12 seed that wandered into a regional final. The Beavers wallowed against Houston’s defense, were waylaid on the glass and wobbled into halftime trailing by 17 points. It was time to start researching the biggest Elite Eight blowouts in tourney history.

But Wayne Tinkle dug into his bag of zone defense tricks and came up with a 1-3-1 concoction that paralyzed the Cougars. From Syracuse to USC to Oregon State, zones have wreaked havoc in this tourney. While everyone faces zones during a season, few teams are accustomed to attacking a 1-3-1.

With Houston dithering, the Beavers began gnawing away at what was a 14-point deficit at the nine-minute mark. A 17–3 run capped with a Gianni Hunt three-pointer to tie the game at 55 with 3:48 remaining, and it seemed a very real possibility that Oregon State would keep rolling right past the Cougars and into the Final Four as the highest seed ever to advance that far.

But in a TV timeout that preceded Hunt’s tying three, Sampson reinforced the need for his team to keep attacking and resist passivity. “Don’t be afraid to fail,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to miss the shot.”

Leading scorer Quentin Grimes was stashed in an open niche against the 1-3-1, and he delivered a three that gave Houston the lead for good. At the defensive end, the Cougars resumed throttling the Beavers, who very abruptly lost the mojo that fueled their comeback. They couldn’t do anything right offensively down the stretch, and Houston held on.

When the horn finally sounded, Sampson heaved himself up out of his chair and into the arms of his son and assistant coach, Kellen. They hugged for a long time, and then there was a lengthy moment with regional Most Outstanding Player DeJon Jarreau. When his daughter Lauren, the program’s director of operations, stepped into embrace her 65-year-old father, his tears flowed.

Lauren was so nervous in the final minutes that she sank out of her chair and onto the floor on the opposite side of the court from the Houston bench. A few minutes later she was standing at midcourt next to her dad, Kellen on the other side, as someone took a picture of them with the regional championship trophy.

It’s been 19 years since Sampson’s last Final Four appearance, which came when he was coaching Oklahoma. The first time Sampson took a team to the last weekend of the season, his career was still ascending and filled with the promise that carried him to Indiana. Then he crashed. The man who climbed the ladder in Lucas Oil on Monday night bore the scars of that crash and the wrinkles of a methodical career rebuild.

He’s a hero in Houston and a pariah in Indiana, where they still haven’t figured out how to win big again. On the day they rebooted once more in Bloomington, Kelvin Sampson rose again 50 miles north.

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