Hoops Off Season Update: Part 1

It’s the first Friday of September; the calm before the storm. The University of Houston men’s basketball team can’t even practice together in full court scrimmages for another two weeks. While everyone else is focusing on football, head basketball coach Kelvin Sampson is hard at work.

This particular morning as I walk into his office at the Athletic Alumni Center he’s speaking to a recruit and his family. While he couldn’t speak of the visit (per NCAA rules), I later learned this was Armoni Brooks, a 6-foot-4 inch shooting guard out of Round Rock, Texas who committed the next day. Valentine Sangoyomi (a 6’11, 260 pound post out of Northern Oklahoma Junior College) became the program’s second commit that weekend. We discussed numerous subjects during our 30 minute interview including the team’s trip to China, continuing building of the team culture that began last season, updates on the roster and player roles and how his team is looking through the off-season, and his coaching staff. We also talked about other important members of the support staff, or the people behind the scenes that make the program run. We concluded our interview with updates on Hofheinz, the realignment issue and matters outside the court of play such as ‘play-for-pay’ and ‘cost of attendance.’ The following will be one of two articles I’ll have over the next two weeks with the first on recruiting, team bonding over the China trip and how the team presently looks.

Sampson on recruiting, which he appears to almost have wrapped up with the two aforementioned commits, “We have everyone coming back. We may start one senior this year so we could easily have 8 of our top 10 back, so our recruiting this year is for very specific needs. You never have enough shooting and we have to continue to address our size issue.”

The last time I spoke with the Coogs head man was in early May, before the team’s trip to China. Sampson on the trip and what it did for the team, “The China trip was great on so many different levels. I think that was my fourth foreign tour with a team. When I was a head coach at Washington State I took a team to Russia, to Moscow and at the time Leningrad. It was in August of the 91’92 season. Then at Oklahoma we went to Costa Rica and at Indiana we went to the Bahamas and here of course we went to China. They were all good but this one unequivocally was the best one I’ve ever been on. First of all you start with the 10 practices leading up to the trip because that really is the caveat. In a lot of ways the games are almost anti-climactic. You don’t go to play the games. You do it for the practices and I think coaches are usually strategic on when they choose to go on these trips. When Mac Rhoades hired me one of the first questions I asked him was ‘when was the last time you’ve been on a foreign trip?’ ‘Never.’ Well ok I don’t want to go on one now but I’d like to next summer because it does two things. I knew we were going to have some transfers sitting out and I knew this was going to be an important recruiting class. With last year’s team we inherited what we inherited and added to it what we could, but this year’s team is the team we recruited so this is really our first team in some ways, though last year’s team I’ll always be indebted to since they started laying the foundation.”

The head coach continues on some of his key players for the upcoming season and how the practices leading up to the China trip helped, “Ronnie Johnson had not played basketball in 17 months. He’s a transfer from Purdue. Damyean Dotson had not played basketball in 17 months. He’s a transfer from Oregon. Rob Gray, who has three years remaining, we recruited. Galen Robinson, new recruit. Kyle Meyer, new recruit. Bert Nkali sat out the year with groin surgery so he’s really like a new recruit. That’s like six, with Xavier Dupree, seven players added to this year’s team and some of these guys I’d never seen in a game. I’d never seen Dotson play other than on tape, the same with Johnson, and other than practices last year. So it’s going to be interesting to see how they all fit together.”

Sampson on his returning players and how the team bonded in China, “Chicken Knowles (who couldn’t make the trip because of Visa issues), Devonta Pollard, LeRon Barnes, Eric Weary, Wes VanBeck and L.J. Rose are all back, though L.J. is still hobbled with his surgery and hasn’t fully recovered from that. So those 10 practices allowed us to get a peak to what we could look like. Then we put our guys through some tough practices to see how they’d react. Then after the 10 practices, I think we left on August the 10th, we get to the airport and it’s like a 14 hour flight and then from there we had a 2 to 3 hour layover, but all of those things were good. It’s not easy flying for 14 hours then sitting around for 2 to 3 more for another 2 hour flight. Our guys were tired, but every piece of adversity on that trip was what I wanted. I didn’t want to fly to Toronto or Montreal, just outside the continental United States and stay at a Marriott or a Hyatt Regency and go bungee jumping on our off days and feast on cheese burgers. I don’t know that you come back from those trips and you’ve found out anything about your team. I think you find out about your team when you put them in adverse situations. To the Chinese people their foods are delicacies and I have so much respect for the preparation that goes into their food. They have this wonderful food but it’s not for us. It’s not food that we eat so our guys didn’t like the food, the hotels were not great. We had 5 to 6 hour bus rides from city to city but you know what all that did? It just brought us closer together. There’s no social media, no Twitter. Their phones only worked in certain areas. So when they’re on that bus for 6 hours they slept, they listened to music and they laughed and talked. I remember sitting on the front of that bus with my wife and our AD (athletic director Hunter Yurachek) and I was so thrilled. For a coach that’s like a fine wine or great music; just listening to your team in the back of that bus talking and getting closer.”

The team won three of four games on the trip. Coach Sampson on the games themselves, “That first game in the first quarter we couldn’t have guarded that team in a phone booth. They were chopping us up. Get to the second quarter, I call timeout; we’ll do this, this and this and the next thing you know here we come. We find a way to win the game and the gym we played in (Golden Seed Arena in Hefei) was packed. And these were against select Junior Nationals. They’ll be on the next Chinese Olympic team. They’ve got a couple 18, 19 year old 6’10, 6’11 kids that you can tell are going to be good pros too and two good guards. It was a good team. We weren’t prepared for them in that first quarter. They scored 30 on us but we scored 28. Then after that everything got better. That was a good win for us (93-83). Then that second game there was a scrap. As soon as the first ball was thrown up; boom, boom, boom, boom! They came after us and those were grown men. They won the game even though we were up 8 in the last quarter. I think they went to the line something like 48 times to our 6. The refs didn’t speak English. When I said, ‘are they not fouling too?’ I don’t think they understood what I said.”

Sampson laughs while recalling the 77-66 loss to Chinese Basketball Association’s Qingdao Doublestars and goes on, “…but we bounced back and won the last two so it was a great trip (74-64 and 79-76 wins over Qingdao in Taihe and Tongling concluding their 4 city 4 day tour). Culturally we got to see things; a 900 year old village, the Yellow Mountains. Again, the food, the shaky hotel situation, the long bus rides. Everyone says ‘that’s too bad you had to go through all that.’ Noooo, that was great. That was exactly what I wanted. It was a great trip. A great experience and we got out of it exactly what I wanted.”

Coach on how team roles are starting to form and on which players stood out on the China trip, “We have good guards. That’s gonna be tricky to figure out who starts. I’m not sure we’re going to start our best 3 guards because I want to make sure we have some firepower coming off the bench. Rob Gray stood out. He had 24 points in our last game. He’s a good scorer and a good player. Damyean Dotson had 21 his first game and 19 or 20 in the fourth game. It’s good he knocked some rust off. Ronnie Johnson had some good games. Galen Robinson, the freshman, had some good games. One guy who’s improved a lot from last year is LeRon Barnes. He’s really become a lot more offensive minded. You can tell he’s really worked hard on his shooting. Eric Weary had some nice moments. We’re really deep in the backcourt. You ask how we won games over there (in China)? Well we never had a bad guard on the floor and I started a different group in every game because I wanted to experiment against live competition. In three of the four games Devonta Pollard really played well. Xavier Dupree really surprised me. He really showed me some things. Kyle Meyer is gonna help us this year. Bert Knali’s gonna help. Kyle’s 6’10, 230 and Bert’s 6’9, 240. We didn’t have that last year when we were playing Chicken at center and he’s more of a 3 than a 5. We’ll be a much improved team and what should be exciting for the fans is we’ll be a very fun team to watch.”

Sampson on the progress of L.J. Rose, “L.J’s getting his final X-ray soon. His parents are his doctors. We don’t really have a lot to do with his rehab. His parents and doctors are running that show and I’m fine with that. From his parents’ standpoint, their son broke his foot three times so they’re being super conservative and they should be. He had surgery March 20th I think, so that’s 6 months ago. Usually they come back in 16 weeks (from that type of injury) and he’s at 24 weeks now and counting, but he’s going to get the X-ray in the middle of this next week and take it from there. He’s not jumping on it right now, just stationary shooting and hasn’t done anything with the team. It’ll be interesting to see how he comes back from this and if he does he’ll give us another great guard.”

Three-star recruit Chris Harris is a 6’9, 200 pound athletic big out of Houston’s Madison High, who while still very raw, is a great shot blocker and rebounder and could have helped the team out as a true freshman. Unfortunately for Sampson, Harris won’t be playing with the team this season. Sampson bristled at the subject and while giving me the low down off the record, he did say the following about the entire situation, “He’s not going to be with us this year. He appealed his eligibility. His grades were ok but HISD did not get his grades to the NCAA Clearinghouse on time. We will get him back next season though and will have him for 4 years.”

Coach Sampson is big on ‘culture,’ or how the team does everything. It’s an ongoing process in his second season, “This time last year we had three people driving the culture; myself, my son (assistant head coach) Kellen, and Hollis Price (Director of Player Development). Those were the only three who knew what the culture was. We had to teach the coaches. We had to teach the players. Now that we’ve been through it for a year, Coach (Alvin) Brooks understands our culture. Coach (Talvin) Hester understands it. We hired Mikhail McLean as a grad assistant. He understands it and he’s been a huge help. Coach (Steve) Yoder (Director of Operations) understands it. Everyone involved in our coaching staff now understands it but more importantly all the returning players, whether it’s in the weight room or locker room, practice, tutoring sessions, going to class. Just how we do things and what we expect. It’s our behavior. How we represent this university. As far as our basketball program it’s how we practice, how we prepare for practice. Making sure the locker room is clean. The way we treat people. All that goes into establishing culture and last year we had to do all that from the ground up. Now with those new players coming in we have a lot of help. The staff understands it now and things are getting a lot better.”

The NCAA breaks down the off-season into different segments as far as allowing different types of individual and team practices. Sampson breaks down where the team is now and the schedule leading up to the start of the season, “This is a different year in a lot of aspects. We started July 27th and got back on August 20th (from the China trip) so we’ve already had a month together of playing ball. We just started this past Monday (August 31st) in the weight room. All of our bigs lift four times a week and then we started our team workouts on Monday as well. We’re allowed to go 2 hours a week in basketball and 6 hours a week in strength and conditioning so that’s 8 hours a week total. In basketball the only thing we’re allowed to do right now is individual workouts in groups. So our point guard group; Galen Robinson, Ronnie Johnson and Rob Gray, Kellen does a tremendous job with them. The wing group is Eric Weary, Damyean Dotson, LeRon Barnes and Wes VanBeck. Now those four guys get after it, let me tell you. Then the third group is Kyle, Devonta, X and Chicken. Bert does a separate workout because he’s not a shooter, so he’s on a completely different program. So our guys are working in those groups three days a week, 40 minutes at a time which adds up to two hours. Starting on September the 14th we can do team workouts but it’s still only 2 hours a week and then we’ll officially start practice somewhere around October the 6th or 7th in which we can practice for 20 hours a week, which has never been an issue. If you’re organized and your kids are really getting after it then you really can’t use 20 hours a week. Our practices are intense. We have a big scrimmage coming up and then a big exhibition game. My first coaching job was at Montana Tech and we have them coming here on November the 13th.”

Next week’s article will be on subjects outside of the court such as Sampson’s thoughts on who he thinks should be the Coogs next head coach, ‘play-for-pay,’ realignment, how to make the college game more appealing to fans and the latest update on the Hof refurbish.

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