Top-ranked UH figures only to get better

DNA does not lie.

Whether we’re talking “Law & Order,” “The Maury Povich Show” or college basketball, DNA can offer a blueprint and tell us everything we need to know.

“Every team you just have to bring along, because they are all different,” University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said in advance of Wednesday’s game against South Florida at Fertitta Center. “Our DNA remains the same, but the faces change. (But) as long as they understand what the DNA is …”

Players come and go from Cullen Boulevard. 

Winning has not.

A veteran cast last year came one win away from a repeat trip to the Final Four.

Halfway through this season, the Cougars feature a team with three freshmen getting significant minutes in the rotation.

Entering Wednesday, the No. 1-ranked Cougars were 16-1 and alone in first place in the American Athletic Conference. Scan the remainder of the schedule, and there might not be another serious challenge until March.

No wonder a panel of ESPN’s college basketball experts this week were unanimous in their pick for the Cougars to cut down the nets at NRG Stadium, site of this year’s Final Four.

“For me now, Houston has the highest floor of any team in the country,” ESPN’s Jeff Borzello wrote.

The NCAA’s website projects the Cougars as the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

But the Cougars are nowhere near where they’ll be come Tournament time. Fire up the jet. Time for another $1 million bet, Mattress Mack.

Freshman forward Jarace Walker has begun to show potential to take over games, with back-to-back 20-point performances. Ja’Vier Francis, listed as a sophomore but really a first-year player, has developed into a legit big man able to block shots. Emmanuel Sharp and Terrance Arceneaux, two other first-year players, are counted on for significant minutes. J’Wan Roberts has gone from a role player to starter capable of putting up a double-double any night. Reggie Chaney brings “a nastiness” inside, according to Sampson.

How far the Cougars go, inevitably, will be decided on the play of veteran guards Marcus Sasser, a preseason All-America selection, Jamal Shead and Tramon Mark. Sasser and Mark sat out the final three months last season with injuries. And that team came a cold-shooting game against Villanova from reaching the Final Four.

Asked for his assessment of the current roster, Sampson said: “This team is still evolving, still growing.

“I don’t mean that to say, well, how much better can you get? I just think we can get better,” he added. “I have no idea. Maybe a little bit better. Maybe a smidge. Maybe a nudge. Maybe a little bit more than a little bit. I have no idea. But the goal is to find out how do you continue to get better.”

That begins in practice. Few teams in the nation are better at player development than Sampson and his staff.

On most days, Sampson will coach the red team that features the usual starting five of Shead, Sasser, Mark, Roberts and Walker. Kellen Sampson, UH’s top assistant coach and head coach-in-waiting, will coach the white team that features Mylik Wilson, a transfer from Texas Tech who is redshirting this season, Sharp, Arceneaux, Chaney and Francis.

Everything is a competition. Layup drills. Shooting drills.

“Kellen is competitive,” Sampson said on a recent Zoom call with reporters. “A lot of times we keep score. There’s always a winner and a loser in our practice, regardless of anything we do — four-on-four, three-on-three, two-on-two, five-on-five. Somebody wins, somebody losses, because we teach competition.

“That’s a pretty tough white team that the red team has to go against. If the red team don’t bring it, they’re going to get tattooed. And if they get tattooed, they know what’s up.”

Every moment serves a purpose. Like how a matchup against Chaney will eventually make Francis tougher. How Wilson, one of the team’s on-ball defenders, can only make Arceneaux better.  

“Developing players is something you have to think outside the box,” Sampson said. “It’s not always the way this guy does it or this guy does it. It’s the way we do it. We have a way we do things here. Our players trust us. We recruit the kids we want to coach, and then we go forward with that.”

The DNA does not lie.

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