After Houston's first Final Four appearance in 37 years, coach Kelvin Sampson had a simple message: "We'll be back." The bar has been raised for Houston, which has made three straight NCAA appearances — it would've been four in a row if not for the COVID-19 shutdown — and has the second-most wins (111) among Division I schools the past four years. Only Gonzaga (127) has more during that stretch.
This season will be nothing new, as Sampson must replace four key members from Houston's Final Four run, most notably All-America guard Quentin Grimes. In typical Sampson fashion, the Cougars plugged holes through the transfer portal and will rely on player development and a core of key returners to make another run at the American Athletic Conference title and more.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Kelvin Sampson
2020-21 RECORD (AAC): 28-4 (14-3)
2020-21 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Baylor 78-59 in the Final Four
F Justin Gorham (8.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg)
G Quentin Grimes (17.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
G DeJon Jarreau (10.6 ppg, 4.3 apg)
G Caleb Mills (9.8 ppg, 1.3 rpg)
Fabian White Jr., a starter the previous two seasons, returned for 13 games after missing most of the year with a torn ACL. The 6'8" fifth-year senior brings a wealth of experience with 52 career starts and has extended his range with the addition of a corner 3-point shot. J'Wan Roberts is expected to take on a bigger role at the 4-spot following the graduation of Justin Gorham, who emerged as one of the nation's top rebounders in his only season as a starter.
Reggie Chaney (6’8’’) fits Sampson's style of play — he's big, strong and tough — and he was invaluable down the stretch when he moved from reserve to the starting lineup for the final 13 games. In what could be the missing piece of the puzzle, Houston added 6'11", 240-pound grad transfer Josh Carlton from the portal. The Cougars are familiar with Carlton, who was a three-year starter at Connecticut and is a physical low-post presence.
The rest of the frontcourt is focused on the future with Kiyron Powell, Ja'Vier Francis and Robbie Armbrester. Powell, who averaged nearly a triple-double at Bosse High School in Evansville, Ind., is "just starting to scratch the surface," Sampson says. Francis, who has a 7'5" wingspan, is the most athletic big man Sampson has recruited at Houston. Armbrester will eventually be groomed as a 3 or 4 and is another example of what Sampson describes as the longest and most athletic team he's had at Houston.
One of the secrets to Houston's success, according to Sampson, has been the ability to "stay old," allowing younger players time to develop. Nowhere is that more evident than the backcourt. Houston added experience through the transfer portal with Kyler Edwards and Taze Moore. Edwards averaged 10.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists as a junior at Texas Tech last season. He gives the Cougars another scorer who can also defend. Moore, the leading scorer the last two seasons at Cal State Bakersfield, brings a defensive-minded approach and is regarded as the most explosive and athletic player on the roster.
Marcus Sasser is the team's top returning scorer (13.7) after making 78 3-pointers. He came up clutch with consecutive 20-point games in the Elite Eight and Final Four. Tramon Mark, Houston's top signee in 2019, is an emerging player and the next in line of talented guards. In mostly a reserve role as a freshman, Mark produced two of the season's biggest moments: a buzzer-beater against Memphis in the final game of the regular season and a tip-in in the final minute in a second-round nail-biter against Rutgers.
Jamal Shead, a speedy point guard, will play a critical role as his minutes increase. Ramon Walker Jr., whose father played in the NFL for the Houston Texans, is a 3-point threat who will be given time to develop.
Sampson has put the Cougars back on the national map, and things may just be getting started. The school signed him to a two-year contract extension before the end of last season, leaving the program in his capable hands until the 2026-27 season. The rising expectations do not seem to faze Sampson, who has put together a challenging schedule that includes Virginia and a trip to the Maui Invitational.
Postseason Prediction: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16
AAC Prediction: 1