Smith: This Houston team will find out if Kelvin Sampson is tough

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Kelvin Sampson certainly has a history of Montana Tech that surpasses this one.

Trudging through 10 feet of piled snow on the way to work, then fighting through 20 feet of snow on the way back home in the dark.

A story about Washington state, Oklahoma or life in the mad NBA that puts everything into perspective and will remind its #1 seed. 1 University of Houston Cougars that, in the end, this is just another winnable game and the toughest team wins winnable games.

But did UH escape safely from an orange-and-blue-soaked Legacy Arena on Saturday night?

Sampson’s Coogs reach the Sweet 16 for the third straight season, but this time with Marcus Sasser injured and Jamal Shead not his normal rapid-fire self?

UH, has been aiming for the Final Four in Houston all season, outpacing Bruce Pearl and the no. 9 Auburn, with every Tigers fan in the country (and Charles Barkley) hoping the Cougars aren’t tough enough this time around?

This will be a Sampson story told over and over again if his limped team stays alive in the 2023 NCAA Tournament.

This will be the ultimate reminder that toughness trumps talent on Cullen Boulevard and inner strength is everything to the Coogs on college basketball’s biggest stages.

“We’re going to regroup. Look at how many bodies we have for Saturday and see who’s available and go play,” Sampson said, after UH held off No. 16 Northern Kentucky 63-52.

This second round battle is already set up as a classic Sampson game.

Kelvin and Kellen, with the hardwood leader and UH assistant principal having to dig deep to find a way to Kansas City, Mo., next week as the Midwest region narrows into the Sweet 16.

The entire coaching staff, who must go through video after video to try to exploit the weaknesses of a 21-12 Auburn team that was 10-8 in conference play and trailed #1 seed Alabama, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Tennessee in the SEC before this dance started.

The Coogs aren’t called Sasser and Shead, which has to take it back to 2018, ’19, ’21 and ’22, when UH continued to fight for national respect and prove their worth, game after game.

“This is our fight. This team has more talent than those teams,” Kellen Sampson said in February. “Those teams were tougher. Those teams won the fight, and that’s the internal fight we talk about as staff all the time.”

Play, play, play.

The bell for round two is ringing and this UH crew only advances to the Sweet 16 if they go all-in for 40 minutes on Saturday night.

The cheapest single ticket was $310 on a secondary market website on Friday morning.

This will not be the Iron Bowl. But it will be another reminder to the Coogs that iron sharpens better by applying more iron.

The lack of cohesion and accuracy on the court that was displayed against the little-known Norwegian will drive UH out of the local gym out of Auburn.

“They were tougher than us (Thursday) and it’s not easy for me to say,” said Kelvin Sampson. “I am disappointed in this.”

It’s time for give-me-all-you-got-talks-for-one of college basketball’s most respected coaches.

It’s serious #ForTheCity time for a No. 1 seed who spent nearly the entire 2022-23 season at or near the weekly Top 25.

It’s also time to start answering the questions that have been floating around these Coogs all season.

Is this UH team better than previous Sampson teams?

Is UH underrated? Or overrated?

The double guard offense of Sasser and Shead pushes the Cougars, but Sampson has built a team culture that can win in almost any environment.

This is Auburn, Alabama with the Sweet 16 on the line.

This is a season that should end in Houston in the Final Four.

If Sampson coaches UH to another win in Birmingham, he’ll have the rest of his life to tell that story.

“We have to understand that,” he said. “But that’s my responsibility and I’ll do my best.”

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