Here’s everything Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson and his players said at the podium Thursday, ahead of Friday night’s NCAA Tournament game against Kentucky:
Opening statement: “Really fun team to coach. There’s sometimes you have an inkling. Oftentimes that inkling is wrong, but you have an inkling that you might have a pretty good team. We lost so much from last year’s team that — and that spurred us into June and July of when we’re allowed to work with those kids four hours a week.
“We really focused on three, four things that we value. So when the season started, I knew we were further ahead defensively than we were offensively because we didn’t get (Dejon) Jarreau. Jarreau didn’t play for us until mid June — excuse me, mid-December, and Fabian White didn’t play until the first week in December.
“We played BYU at BYU in late November. And at one point we were up 18-16 on the road, and that was — I could tell, that team has got a chance to be pretty good. BYU was really good offensively. And earlier in the season, good teams don’t know they’re good and bad teams don’t know they’re bad. Everybody is the same. That was a road game at Provo with a basically a new team. I didn’t know — didn’t know how they would react.
“I wasn’t nervous or worried about that game. I was anxious. I wanted to see how we would play on the road. That’s when you know whether you have a good team or not. It’s not at home. It’s how you play on the road.
“Then the thing I was most proud of with this team was not — being 16-2 in your conference, especially a conference as hard as ours is outstanding. But being 8-1 on the road, that was how I valued this team and how I evaluated it. We just became a really good team as the season progressed, and we learned how to play with each other. And that’s a tribute to Galen and Corey, Breaon, our seniors, and their ability to lead every day in practice and teach these young guys how to practice.
Coach, I’m wondering how — the big question with Kentucky’s PJ Washington’s availability. I’m wondering what you expect there and how that factors in your planning?
“Yeah, we’ve never seen Kentucky play with him or without him. We’ve never seen him play except on film. So, all the film we’re watching is him with them. I haven’t watched them without him. That doesn’t factor in with us at all.”
Talk to me a little bit about Corey (Davis) and when you first got him from San Jac, did you know he was this complete a player?
“The old “did you know” question. Like that question. “Did you know?” You get older, you hear like that, you just want to go, “You know what, we just pulled his name out of a hat.” I’m just joking, hoops. I’m just being bad.
“Here’s what I knew: I knew he was a competitor. I knew he was a tough, tough nut. He was a shot maker. He had to develop — we have — we have to develop kids. That is the — I think the most important part of our program is our player development, and our assistant coaches are really, really good at that. Corey had to be developed.
“Ball handling versus pressure, he had to develop a dribble game. He’s a good catch-and-shoot guy but doesn’t have much of a dribble game.
“You start with the first thing we talked about, how tough he is and what a great kid he is. Unbelievable competitor every day. High character kids don’t have highs and lows. Pretty solid everyday. That’s what he is.”
What is your response to your name being linked to the Arkansas job, and has UH offered you a contract extension?
“I’m not going to talk about my contract situation. My response to — what school was it? I was just joking (laughter). I didn’t know if you said Arizona or Arkansas or Alaska or — yeah. Been a lot of those schools over the years. I don’t really have a response to it. I don’t know what I’m supposed to respond to, you know. There’s nothing to respond to.”
I’ve read some comments from Tubby Smith just talking about what a good coaching job you’ve done. I know you guys go way back. What has that relationship meant to you in your career and life?
“I first got to know Tubby when I was 21, 22 years old. I was doing my student teaching in the fall of my senior year in college, and the school that I was doing my student teaching at was Upchurch Junior High School.
“Tubby was the head basketball coach at Rafert High School. It’s in Hoke County, North Carolina. I was born and raised in a real small town called Pembroke. Rafert is about 20 miles. But I knew who Tubby was. I didn’t know him, though.
“Anytime significant — something of significance happens in my life, there’s two people to either call or text me right away. One is Tubby and the other is Rick Barnes. Rick Barnes — Rick was Lenoir Rhyne College when I was at UNC Pembroke. I think Rick was a sophomore when I was a freshman. Tubby was out of college when I started college, but he’s one of my best friends.
“My father used to say if you have one friend, one friend in your life, you’re a rich man. Well, I’ve got a bunch, none that’s closer to me than Tubby or Rick.”
What’s this ride been like for you? The first time you’ve been back to a Sweet 16 since ‘03 with Oklahoma. What’s it like being up here?
“It’s hard to get to the Sweet 16 when you’re in the NBA (laughter). You know, you can get to the second round, the playoffs. I love the NBA. I really did. I was talking with Ian Eagle and Jim Spanarkel. They do the Brooklyn Nets games. I always saw them when we go to the Barclays or East Rutherford, wherever we were.
“You know, you go to this tournament so much, but you learn never to take it for granted and I don’t. This is hard to make the tournament. I think being at this stage now looking back — and I look at guys like Mick Cronin at Cincinnati, what he’s going through a little bit of right. Now, when you’re really good, you become a little bit a victim of your success. You have to compare it to something.
“Mick Cronin is not a good coach now. He is a great coach. He is a great coach. Hardest team we play every year is always Cincinnati. He loses to Iowa. Game he could have easily won and he had — he had — who was the next game? Who did Iowa lose to? Tennessee. Could have won that game.
“You got to be good that day. There’s so much — there’s so much — winning and losing is so opinionated. It depends on which side of the fence you’re on. I hate to see coaches evaluated on whether they win their first game and not celebrated for making it. It’s no big deal anymore to make the tournament if you made it a lot. You almost better off going three, four years without making it than when you make it. Wow, that’s a great job ever rebuilding.
“But it is. You take it for granted if you’re a fan. Sometimes administrators do. It’s hard to make this tournament. You look at all the great programs that haven’t made it the last two years, four years, five years, you wonder why, because it’s not easy. It’s a grind. Every conference is hard. I don’t know how you evaluate a conference. I’ve coached in some great conferences. I couldn’t tell you the difference in what versus the other. They’re all the same. At the top, they’re the same, the middle and the bottom. They all have those three things going for them.
“Central Florida was one of the best teams we played this year and we played LSU, Oregon. Central Florida is really good. From a perception standpoint, unfortunately, people didn’t realize how good they were, not when they played us but when they played Duke. Them people gave them credit for that. That’s just the way people perceive things.
“So, I have a lot of respect for the schools that make this tournament but also have a lot of respect for the schools that came a little short.
John Calipari has really been singing your praises this week. Probably trying to (build) you up.
“Are you saying he wasn’t sincere? You had me going and brought me down (laughter). Holy smokes.
He talks about you like —
“He’s singing your praises, but he didn’t really mean it laughter.”
What exactly is your relationship with him and what is the biggest challenge in playing against a John Calipari coached team?
“Well, John Calipari reminds me of a good hit, no field shortstop. You guys remember Mark Belanger that used to play with the Orioles? I’m a baseball nut. Let’s say he had five, six years where he hit between 275 and 290. No matter what, he’s going to be good hit, no field. John Calipari will never get the credit from a lot of people for being a great coach.
“I didn’t see Kentucky — that’s not true. I saw them play Tennessee — I can’t remember if that was “College Gameday” or not. But it was a Saturday night, and we must have played in the afternoon. I did watch that game. I was amazed at how good Kentucky was. I knew how good Tennessee was and the game wasn’t close.
“I didn’t start really looking at him until after the Ohio State game. We started — that was a Sunday game, I think so Monday I started looking at him, Tuesday. Good plan. They’ve got a really good plan. That’s when you can tell how good — the influence of the coach is their plan.
“We watched a little bit of the Wofford tape. I wanted to see Herro without Washington. Plays him like any other coach would. Herro is really good at running in and out of screens, high basketball IQ kid. The players, the blocks they play on. He plays them to their strength. Hagans understands how to run that offense that they run. They get the ball to the right spots and they’re really good on defense. They’ve got a great, great plan.
“So, John is an excellent coach. Cal is a really good coach. Our relationship goes back a long time. He’s actually — myself, Tubby, Rick and Cal all played in the same conference at one time. Good ole NAIA District 26 back in North Carolina. Different times. We’re all —Tubby is kind of our mentor a little bit. He’s a little bit older.
“Cal was at UNC Wilmington. Rick was at allowable. I was from Pembroke. We all came from kind of the same foundation, if you will. Small college kids that kind of grew up. John has always been — John has always been really smart. Knows what he wants and knows know to get it. I’ve always admired John and have a lot of respect for everything he does.
Speaking of background, I don’t know if I’ve ever asked you this, what was it like going from a guard at Pembroke to a graduate assistant at the program that had just won the highest profile college basketball game of all time?
“Your first instinct is to ask for autographs. I didn’t know Magic was Magic then. They either called him Earvin or EJ. God, was — I was afraid of him. I was so intimidated by that man. I was in over my head. Small town kid, dad was a high school coach, mother was a nurse. I had a twin sister, older sister, younger sister, just lived like anybody else.
“All of a sudden I go from an NAIA school to Michigan State. I remember one of my first — can’t remember the kinesiology or physiology class. They made everybody stand up and say what you’re from. This was a night class and kids were saying — undergrad, right, all graduate students. Some kids were saying Notre Dame, Paulson College, Michigan, Michigan State, lot of Michigan State. Different undergrads in the Big Ten. I stand up and I say Pembroke State. Nobody looked at the other guys. They all looked at me. Where is this guy from? Pembroke State, what is that?
“I was in awe of the whole thing. I got lucky in that Jud liked me and he always did. Up until when Jud died, I don’t think there was a month he and I didn’t talk. When he retired and he moved to Spokane, which was one of the classiest things you could do. He would call me and say, “Kel, good news, bad news. Good news is I saw your game last night. Bad news is I saw your game last night. Who is recruiting your guards?” (Laughter).
“I said Jud — but I can give you a ton of those things, but whether it’s Tom Izzo or Mike Dean. He’s had — had such an impact on so many guy’s lives. That’s what Michigan State meant for me was — biggest thing was the first two jobs I got was because of Jud. He got me both jobs, assistant at Montana Tech and the head coaching job at Washington State. Jud, his first year out of high school, the first college he went to was Montana Tech. Until Jud died, he always gave them a thousand dollars a year for their booster club. That’s the way he was. Every year wrote a check for a thousand dollars.
“Then Washington State — he graduated from Washington state, assistant there for Marv Harshman. When they had a guy that I was working for left to go to Nevada, Reno, because he thought he could get to the tournament easier and he was right. Washington State was the toughest job in the PAC-10 at the time. And Jud just called him and said — told him who to hire, so that was Jud. That was the impact he had on me.”
Your experience taking teams deep into the tournament has great value. How about your veteran guys who have been in this tournament now playing with success the last two years, how does that increase the value?
“Yeah, that’s a good question. I don’t know if my experience necessarily helps. These are all big games. Every team here plays big games. We had to play at Cincinnati on senior night. That’s a big game at Oklahoma State, at BYU. We played LSU at home. You play so many big games during the course of the year, these are magnified because of this and when the kids walk in they see everything.
“But I think when the game starts, I think the culture that you built in your program, if it’s strong culture, if it’s strong enough, those kids will lean on that. That becomes who our team is, who our program is, and ultimately becomes who they are.
“But Galen and Corey, their leadership is critical to this team. We wouldn’t have the success that we have if it were not for Corey and Galen’s leadership. Our team, we’re all blessed to have those two kids.
You mentioned you were out of the game for awhile in the NBA. Since you come back, have you seen any differences in the game? There’s a bunch of this stuff going on that FBI investigations and shoe things, does that stuff change or was that stuff going on back when were you there or just people seeing the underbelly of the game?
“Whether it was going on or not, we’d all be naive to think it was not. The difference is wiretaps. What if they didn’t have the wiretaps now? Would we know? I’m assuming that stuff has been going on — you hear about it. The game will survive obviously in time, but it certainly puts a tarnish on it.”
Your defensive numbers are really, really good. I’m wondering, why is that, what elements go into that how well are you guys defending?
“We certainly work at it. Just because you work at it doesn’t mean you’re going to be good at it. Everything that we do in our program — you know, we don’t have a great offensive team. Last year we were — last year’s team was better offensively. Last year’s team was ranked in the top 12, 13 in the nation defensively, too. Defensive field goal efficiency.
“This team blocks shots a little bit better, a little bit longer and athletic. Little more athletic off the bench. None of our guys individual’s numbers will look good. I think our leading rebounders our 6-3 guard. But don’t get fooled by that. None of our guys play — our best rebounders some nights only played five minutes, only play eight minutes.
“Like Georgia State the other night, the way they played, five guys were behind the 3-point line. You’ve taken away two guys’ playing time. Chris Harris and Brison Gresham. Chris is 6-10, 250. Brison is about 6-9, 230. They’re better playing the guys that post up. They don’t guard fives that play behind the 3-point line. I think our aggregate numbers will be good rebounding. We’re a good rebounding team. We’re a good defensive team.
“Defense is just guarding a series of actions. What actions are we guarding? Is it a pick and roll team, is it a pin down team or screen down team? Are they a motion team? What is their primary offense? Your kids’ ability to stay disciplined during the course of whatever action it is that the shot clock, we really work at that.
“My assistant coaches do a great job. I can’t tell you how great my staff is. Our kids are well prepared because my staff does a great job of being prepared for them. So, it’s a combination of a lot of things.”
Corey, you’ve had an interesting journey to get to this point with some injury early in your career, and I understand that you thought about actually quitting the game at one point. Could you just kind of discuss what this means to get to the Sweet 16 here after what you’ve been through in?
Corey Davis: “Honestly just means everything. I mean, just how hard I worked to get here, everything I’ve been through to get here. The process that I took, I mean, it just led me to this point. I went through everything for a reason and I’m just blessed to be here, honestly.”
For either of you, have any of the guys from Phi Slama Jama talked to you guys at all this season, has there much contact there?
Galen Robinson: “They came to a lot of the home games. They’ll say some quick — Clyde Drexler told me I need to get some meat on my bones. You know, I remember that. But for the most part, just friendly conversation.”
Just curious how you guys are preparing for Kentucky with PJ Washington or without and how you’re going about that?
Corey Davis: “Honestly, we’re just — we’re scouting them as a whole. If PJ plays — we know his tendencies. We know what he likes to do as an individual. So I mean, it doesn’t really affect our game. We’re just focusing on the team as a whole and what we’re going to do.
Galen Robinson: “We’re definitely anticipating that he’s playing. We’re preparing like he’s a starting 4 man.”
Follow-up to that question. As competitors, you guys probably do hope that he plays, right?
Galen Robinson: “Me personally, it don’t matter. We still have to play Kentucky. We still have to try our hardest to win the basketball game. If he plays, same treatment.”
Corey Davis: “Me as a basketball player, you don’t really want to be playing a team that’s not at their full health. Giving them any ammunition if they do lose to have a reason that you beat them or whatever. If they have a full team, it makes it more fun, more entertaining.”
Q. One of your teammates I spoke to said your coach is telling you, you have to be 8 points better than Kentucky to win. I was hoping could you expand on that.
Corey Davis: “Honestly, we just — what he basically meant is we have to play with a chip on our shoulder. We know we’re coming into the game as underdogs. We have to play like our lives are depending on it. We have a lot we’re playing for. We just love this group we’re with. We have to come in and just buy into the entire game for 40 minutes.”
Galen Robinson: “I think he related that to the adversity we’re going to face. Definitely going to have more fans than us here. You know, everything is going to be — yeah, we’re definitely the underdog. We have to have a chip on our shoulder and play with our hearts.”