Hear what PJ Washington, Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson had to say heading into Sweet 16
Talk about friendly rivals.
There Thursday was Houston basketball coach Kelvin Sampson, serving a heaping helping of praise on a certain coach from Kentucky: “John Calipari will never get the credit from a lot of people for being a great coach.”
And there was Calipari throwing-it-right-back-at-ya-buddy: “What Kelvin Sampson has done (at Houston) is incredible.”
Stop. Just stop. Come on, now, it’s a Midwest Region semifinal of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on Friday night at the Sprint Center. The Sweet 16. An Elite Eight berth on the line. Two wins away from the Final Four. Given the stakes, we need two coaches simmering with the competitive motivation of a mutual dislike, not a professional lovefest.
Turns out we’re way out of luck, at least when it comes to the relationship between the 63-year-old Sampson and the 60-year-old Calipari.
“Our relationship goes back a long time,” Sampson said Thursday. “Myself, Tubby, Rick and Cal all played in the same conference at one time. Good ole NAIA District 26 back in North Carolina.”
Back in the 1970s, in the hills of Carolina, you had Tubby Smith at High Point, Rick Barnes at Lenoir-Rhyne, Calipari at UNC-Wilmington and Sampson at Pembroke State. When Sampson was hired by Jud Heathcote as a graduate assistant at Michigan State, he was in a class where every student had to stand and tell where he or she earned their undergrad degree. When Sampson said “Pembroke State” the entire classroom turned around and asked the same question. Where in the heck is Pembroke State?
“We all kind of came from the same foundation,” said Sampson, who lists Tubby Smith as a mentor. “Small-college kids that kind of grew up.”
The foundation part shows in a shared philosophy. Never mind the nostalgic rebirth of the program of Phi Slama Jama and the around-the-clock coverage of PJ Washington’s left foot, the magic ingredient that has pushed the Cats and Cougars this far in this tournament journey is defense. That’s defense with a capital D. Good, old-fashioned, hard-nosed, intense defense.
“Coach says Houston plays old-school defense,” UK center Nick Richards said Thursday.
“They play hard and they kind of pack it in,” said Tyler Herro, when asked to define “old-school” defense. (Herro compared the Cougars to South Carolina.) “They don’t pick up full-court, it’s more at the three-point line. They’re packed-in, helping each other.”
“Houston Cougars basketball,” said Houston guard Nate Hinton. “Toughness. Real gritty. Get after you for 40 minutes. The strength of our team is our team. Coach tells us that all the time.”
It works. Houston leads the nation in both field goal percentage defense (36.7) and three-point percentage defense (27.8). Last Sunday, the Cougars held Ohio State to just 38.8 percent shooting from the floor on the way to a 74-59 win over Chris Holtmann’s club. They’re 33-3.
Kentucky is far from an open door in the defensive department either, of course. If you go by kenpom’s super computer, the Cats are actually better defensively (eighth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency) than the Cougs (12th). But then, for one reason or another, Calipari has never received the credit he deserves for turning out one top-notch defensive team after another.
“John has always been really smart,” Sampson said. “Knows what he wants and knows how to get it. I’ve always admired John and have a lot of respect for everything he does.”
Oh, no, there they go again, punching the clock and getting back to work on their mutual admiration society. Your turn, Cal.
“Let me just say this,” Calipari said. “Knowing Kelvin as long as I have, what he’s done with the program, with the culture that he’s created, if you don’t respect — one, his players are really good; obviously he can coach. If you don’t respect them, you’re losing, whether it’s us or anybody else.”