“This team really had to come together,” Sampson said. “Probably more than any other team we’ve had here. We had to be a team, we couldn’t be a team of stars, it had to be teammates. That’s what we teach and emphasize."
The University of Houston is heading to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season.
It wasn’t an eventful selection Sunday for the Cougars, who had already known they would be competing, but that was just fine for Houston, who had already clinched an American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament championship.
“I’m just happy for these guys, having taken so many teams to the tournament that have different levels of expectations, it’s such an accomplishment to make the tournament. No matter how far you make it it’s an accomplishment. We’ve come a long way with this group, and where they are right now is a testament to their hard work, their ability to stay together and play for each other and pick each other up.”
The No. 18 ranked Cougars will enter the tournament as the five seed out of the south region and play No. 12 seed and Conference USA Tournament champion University of Alabama at Birmingham. The two will meet Friday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh at 8:20 p.m. with the winner moving on to play the winner of No. 4 seeded Illinois and No. 13 seeded Chattanooga.
This is the fourth straight season the Cougars have made the tournament.
“It’s really humbling for me, the success we’ve had here,” Sampson said. “Coaches tend not to forget where they came from and I remember April of 2014. We had to start from scratch and there were some players that quit because they thought they couldn’t win here early on. To see where we are now, I always thought we’d get here, because that was always the goal. I had a plan when I got hired, but I had a lot of help to get here.”
It was a year full of adversity for Houston, which saw two of its best players go down to season ending injuries in Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark along with having to replace four starters from last years final four team. But the Cougars still managed to sweep both the AAC in season and tournament crown while winning the second most games in school history.
“This team really had to come together,” Sampson said. “Probably more than any other team we’ve had here. We had to be a team, we couldn’t be a team of stars, it had to be teammates. That’s what we teach and emphasize. When they can have success and get to this stage of the season and still be playing, it just makes me proud of them.”
The first round won’t be a warmup for the Cougars, the Blazers are 27-7 on the season and are on a seven game win streak, and have a player that is scary for any opponent in Jordan Walker.
Walker currently is averaging over 20 points per game and 4.9 assists per game while shooting over 40% from 3-point range. Quan Jackson, Michael Ertel and KJ Buffen all also average double digit points for the Blazers.
“Sometimes we forget about what a great accomplishment it is for any team to make this tournament,” Sampson said. “I was watching UAB in their conference tournament and it was such high quality basketball. They were playing North Texas State and people wouldn’t understand how good that team is. They wouldn’t understand how good of a player Jordan Walker is. I wish we weren’t playing UAB because I’d like to watch them play. They’re fun to watch and they have the most dynamic player we’ve played against all year.”
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