2024 Big 12 Tournament: No. 1 Houston looking to complete its revenge tour vs. Iowa State in title game



KANSAS CITY, Mo. – There was a moment Friday night at the Big 12 Tournament when the nation’s No. 1 team with a bullet looked more than vulnerable. Fourth-seeded Texas Tech had been smacked upside its collective noggin, starting 1 for 12 from the field and trailing by 15 in the first half of its semifinal game against Houston.

“All year we’ve been pretty good about hitting first,” Houston assistant coach Kellen Sampson said outside the Cougars’ locker room. “That’s pretty much a hallmark of our program. We don’t hit back, we hit first. So we take it personally to get off to a good start. It’s important we play the game on our terms.”

And then the bottom fell out of another whoopin’ by the No. 1 Cougars. Texas Tech Coach Grant McCasland had the right idea after watching this team teeter on the brink of getting blown out in the first 10 minutes – go at Houston’s chest. That is, take the ball right at the Cougars. The Red Raiders made shots and basically nutted up without their third-leading scorer and top rebounder, guard Darrion Williams, who was out with an ankle injury. 

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Part of what happened next was drawn up by Sampson in a reporter’s notebook outside Houston’s locker room following an 82-59 win over the Red Raiders that moved Houston into the Big 12 Tournament Championship Game.  Sampson’s face lit up when asked the last time he played a five-guard lineup. 

“Montana Tech Orediggers!” Sampson said.

Then he started the impromptu diagramming. On Friday, a leg injury to leading rebounder J’Wan Roberts dictated that Sampson use five guards at times to find a way past Tech.

But in Sampson World, any such inquiry merely opens the door to another anecdote. In  the early 1980s when Sampson was an unknown coach just starting at the small NAIA school in Butte, Montana, circumstances dictated a similar roster adjustment.  

“I had one team that led the entire nation in free-throw percentage,” Sampson recalled. “No shot clock, no three [back then] … Once we got up by four on the road, there weren’t but three people that touched the ball. 

“We never lost close games .. That’s always been my Nirvana, to have a team full of point guards. Those things are hard to beat in a close game. Right in my wheelhouse.”

So far, just about every obstacle set up in front of Sampson and the Cougars has been similarly knocked down. These are the best of times for Houston – top-ranked and likely the No. 1 overall seed even if the Cougars lose to Iowa State in Saturday’s Big 12 Championship Game. 

That was all but assured on Friday when top-seed contenders Arizona and Tennessee lost. Houston is so much in cruise control, Roberts could even be rested Saturday night. 

“I just surrendered when I first got here,” the 6-foot-7 forward from the Virgin Islands said. “I just tried to ride that wave of guys that came before me.  I learned a lot from them. 

“Every set that coach puts in, every defensive scheme he puts in I never questioned it. I would say he’s a hall of fame coach. He’s been doing it the last 40 years.”

But that’s getting ahead of the carnage that has been left in Houston’s wake in Kansas City. Sampson has now won 30 in his first Big 12 season with Houston, his 13th overall counting 12 seasons at Oklahoma. The man has been around so long that a Saturday victory would put him second (with four) behind Kansas’ Bill Self all-time (nine) in Big 12 Tournament championships. 

In the quarters, the Cougars forced TCU into a 17-for-73 shooting performance. The Frogs actually had one more miss (56), than rebounds (55). TCU and Tech opened a combined 1 for 28 in the first half against Houston. The Red Raiders scrapped its way back to a 37-37 tie early in the second half before Houston systemically shredded the Red Raiders with separate runs of 20-1 and 13-2.

Houston starting guards Jamal Shead, LJ Cryer and Emanuel Sharp were joined off the bench by seniors Mylik Wilson and Damian Dunn to create that celebrated five-guard lineup scoring 66 of the 82 points. More importantly for them, the Cougars found another way to win.

They did it mostly without Roberts who was limited to seven minutes and two points having fallen awkwardly in the first half. 

“I talked to a lot of people going into this game,” Tech coach Grant McCasland said. “I was like, ‘How do we get them on their heels enough to where you get open shots?’ “

You usually don’t against the powerhouse that is No. 1 in turnover margin, opponent field goal percentage, scoring defense and defensive efficiency. 

“We are the fastest team in the country sideline-to-sideline,” said Kellen Sampson, Kelvin’s son. “Nobody flies like we do. It’s like a type of football team that doesn’t have beef up the middle. If you try to beat us with jet sweeps and screens we’re going to run you down. But if you can line up and beat us through the middle of the floor [you’re in trouble].”

Talk about being on a roll. Houston has now won 11 in a row since a Feb. 5 trouncing at Kansas. 

We got an education in Lawrence,” Sampson lamented. “You know when you have everything in sync? The crowd, the team, the coaching staff. That just felt like somewhere we weren’t invited.”

Now they’re making the bracket their own. The Cougars don’t just make you miss, they make you feel like an outmatched 8-year-old kid clanging jumpers against your uncle in a game of H-O-R-S-E. They don’t get mad, they get even. 

“It’s coming out and not being afraid of them,” said Iowa State guard Curtis Jones, already looking ahead after a 76-62 win over Baylor. 

Houston has won its last three by a combined 78 points. Now, you might as well call Kansas City home of Houston’s Revenge Tour. In the space of a week it has beaten two of the only three teams that have defeated the Cougars – Kansas last Saturday by 30 in Houston and TCU Thursday in the Big 12 quarters. 

Up next are the second-seeded Cyclones in that championship game. The teams split on each other’s floor. 

“You’ve got to beat us at our own game,” Shead said. “The only people that really did that this year was Iowa State. They’re very similar to us. We’re very similar to them. Good teams beat each other. I’d say they have the blueprint, but we have to do our best job not to let them follow the blueprint.”

Blueprints are fine. Just don’t let Sampson near any reporter’s notebooks. He loves the old days. 





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