HOUSTON - As the University of Houston Men's Basketball programs continues to prepare for the 2014-15, head coach Kelvin Sampson and several student-athletes met with local media members inside the Carl Lewis Auditorium as part of the team's annual Media Day.
Joining Women's Basketball head coach Ron Hughey and his team members, Sampson and senior forward Mikhail McLean, junior guard Jherrod Stiggers and junior forward Devonta Pollard talked with media members for about an hour before preparing for that day's practice.
The Cougars open the season on Nov. 8 with an exhibition game against North Alabama inside Hofheinz Pavilion. After starting the regular season on Nov. 14 at Murray State, Houston meets Morgan State on Nov. 22 in the regular-season home opener inside Hofheinz Pavilion.
2014-15 HOUSTON BASKETBALL MEDIA DAY
Athletics/Alumni Center Houston, Texas Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014
HEAD COACH Kelvin Sampson
"We have had 11 practices; we've gotten a little better each day. We have battled through some injuries, guys being out for this and that reason, but I like coaching these guys. Obviously there are limitations, but that's neither here nor there for me.
These guys play hard and try hard. They're picking up a new system, and the coaching staff is learning new players. For us, there are no returning players or new players. Everybody is the same."
On how he's started to leave his mark on UH
"Everything starts with your culture; it's often a misunderstood word. Culture has everything to do with how you go about your day-to-day activities - whether it's going to class, being on time for workouts, encouraging a teammate, getting after a loose ball, setting a good screen, sprinting back vs. jogging back, talking, communicating.
The culture is your identity. That has really been my biggest focus. We haven't gotten into a lot of (things) that we need to get into, but I'm not interested in what happens when we get to D, E and F until we get to A B and C - A, B and C is very much our culture and how we go about doing things on a daily basis."
On absences at practice (due to injuries)
"It hasn't affected us at all. We are kind of a `next man up' mentality. L.J. Rose has been out with a broken foot, Mikhail McLean (also) has a broken foot. I've never coached those guys before. Everything's new, so missing a guy means nothing to me. I've never coached Chuck Baker before, or Jherrod Stiggers and vice-versa. I don't know what you can miss unless you've had it.
Chuck Baker's been running point guard. We have a walk-on named Wes VanBeck. If we had a game tonight, our walk-on would play a lot of minutes because that's what we have."
On things he will do the same/ differently as a coach
"Not to beat the drum so much on culture, but the culture will not change. We have a clear understanding of how we want our team to play. There is no debate, negotiations or discussions about how we want our team to play.
The thing that I think the NBA has done for me is open my eyes up to the importance of pace and space. Pace is your tempo, how quickly do you want to play. A lot of teams talk about playing fast, but the first time you run them down the court a few times, guys miss a shot, and the coaches want to slow them down. We are committed to playing fast. That's who we are.
Our team presently is not set up to play the half-court. We don't have those kinds of players. We are very athletic; that is a strength of ours. The pace we want to play at, the shots we want to take is something that we are going to live with. We're going to shoot a lot of 3s. We're going to play as quickly as we can. We have some set rules. For instance, the ball has to be across half-court in three seconds or less, make or miss. We want to get the ball up the court quickly.
"Shot selection is something that has to be taught. Their idea of a good shot may not be my idea of a good shot. That's part of the `no negotiation' phase. Jherrod Stiggers, LeRon Barnes and Chicken (Danrad) Knowles can make 3s - Chuck Baker, Eric Weary, Torian Graham. (3-pointers are) something that our team is going to have to depend on.
"The nights those balls don't go in, here comes our culture - what's important, offensive rebounding. We've got to be a team that gets as close to 50 percent of our missed shots as possible. A lot of nights, you're not going to beat teams with your first shot. You're going to have to depend on your second or third shot. All of those things are emphasized and are part of our daily practices."
On what kind of players he was looking for to fill the roster
"Anybody that had a pulse. If they had a pulse, I was looking for them. When you start recruiting the second week in April, you don't get down to `what are we looking for?' - (you have to think) what's available? That's the first thing we had to look at.
There's a lot of guys out there like Devonta Pollard. We did a lot of background work on Devonta Pollard. We had to find out what kind of person he was, find out if he fit the culture that we wanted to establish here at the University of Houston, and he did.
A lot of the others, we decided to go with mostly junior college kids because, quite frankly, the high school kids who are available in April aren't the kind of kids you're going to build your program with over a four- or five-year period. There are certain mitigating factors that come into play - for instance, APR. If you start recruiting high school kids who are available in April, chances are you may recruit over those kids during the year. They transfer and all of a sudden, you're stuck with a low APR. We had to think a lot of things through in constructing a roster.
Another thing that we were up against were the transfers. We had five or six. It seemed like every kid that I met came in the office and informed me that they had already requested a release. So after a couple days of `I'm transferring,' I started counting heads, and I asked `how many do we have?' - I figured we've got five. So you've got five guys on a 13-man scholarship limit. Math wasn't good, but I thought if we were going to fill our scholarships, we'd need to sign eight guys. That's where we started, and that's what it was. We didn't worry about it. That's just the way it goes.
Sometimes, when you take over a program, you inherit a lot. Sometimes you don't inherit so much - but it's like that saying in `Hoosiers' - `we have our team.'
I'm proud of our guys, I like our guys and I like coaching this team. Is it a perfect roster? Obviously not - this time next year, our roster will be better - two years from now, it will be even better.
We're building this program. This year is what it is. We're establishing culture and getting these guys to play the way we want to play. When people see our style of play, they're going to be excited to watch us. This is going to be a fun team to watch. I'm excited about it."
On future prospects
"We (will) want to focus on high school kids, especially in this area. That's going to be our first priority. Obviously, I didn't know anything about any high school kids until about April 4 or 5. I didn't even know the kids on the team. I didn't know of any high school kids, didn't know who the top high school players in the country were, much less who the high school players in the city of Houston were.
"Our staff has done a great job of getting out and meeting high school coaches. We just had a high school coaches' clinic Saturday (Oct. 18) where we had close to 100 high school coaches in attendance.
We're laying down some roots, establishing some relationships. If you're a basketball coach at the University of Houston, you have to make a concerted effort to recruit (players from) the city of Houston.
"There is a difference in recruiting the best players and recruiting the right players. I want the best players that fit us. That's something that we pay close attention to."
On what it's like to be working with son
"Well obviously I'm closer to him (Kellen Sampson, son) than anybody else. We have a really good coaching staff, Alvin Brooks is outstanding, Talvin Hester is going to be a really good, young coach - our video guy, K.C. Beard; Hollis Price, who obviously is very close with me, up and down the line, Steve Yoder - he's valuable with his wisdom.
It's been good with Kellen. After a while, (I) see him every day. The father/son thing will always be there, but I have a lot of respect for him as a coach and his ability to grow in this profession. Sure, it's always special to work with your son."
On what non-conference games stand out to him, and how they will prepare team for conference play
"Every one of them - not one more than others. We had agreements to play Georgetown and LSU this year; those fell through. We had a contract, allegedly, to play in a tournament in Los Angeles, open to season; that fell through.
So between all those transfers and the schools backing out of scheduling, we were pretty busy April, May, June and July. It seemed like every day we were trying to figure out who was (there) and who was not, who we were playing and who backed out yesterday or today. We replaced those teams. We're playing Murray State, who will obviously be an NCAA Tournament team on Nov. 14. I looked at their roster and everybody said `why do you want to play them?' I said `why not?' - what's the worst thing that can happen, we lose? It's OK, might win too. That's why they keep score. After that, we play Morgan State, then Harvard.
When we did the schedule this year, we weren't necessarily thinking about the NCAA tournament. I was just trying to figure out the roster, but we're on a good foot now, so don't worry about it."
Different mix of the incoming players, how important is it to have that leadership that has been here?
"(Mikhail) McLean is out with a broken foot. I like him. Leadership is another overused, misunderstood word. Leadership to me is consistency every day. If you're going to be this way today, then every day you need to be. Mikhail (McLean) is a real solid leader. He is good role model too. He is a kid who graduated and got his degree last May. He was accepted into graduate school for his master's degree. I really like him. He is really good for our guys.
"Jherrod Stiggers, Danrad Knowles, and L.J. Rose -- even though I haven't worked with L.J. much, you can tell he's a great kid too - we have great kids. That's the thing I really like about this team. I have no idea how good we are obviously, but I like this team. and I like coaching. But Danrad, Jherrod, LeRon are the only three from last year. They are experienced in what we are doing from having played last year in another system. They have no experience playing in this system, so they are all new to me."
On what he took from his NBA experience to make you a better college coach
"That is another great question. The fact that I have been an assistant coach. I was a head coach in college when I was 25 years old, so I've never been an assistant coach. I didn't know how to balance that, but working with Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, (Scott) Skiles in Milwaukee, and (Kevin) McHale in Houston helped make me a better head coach, especially in terms of dealing with the assistant coaches, giving them more freedom and allowing them to be in charge of something. Like today, I've got one of my assistants doing his offense, and another one is in charge of this area, or that area. Doing a better job at delegating has really helped me.
The other people I have worked with like Milwaukee was Lionel Hollins, who is the head coach for the Brooklyn Nets now and was the head coach for Memphis. You learn a lot from just about everybody. I learned a lot from my assistant coaches. We meet every day at about 10 a.m.; sometimes we meet for about two hours. I like to see about what they have done in the past that you have seen and liked in this area. I enjoy learning from them too. They teach me a lot."
On the progress of the team
"We are getting better. You can play exhibition games or scrimmages, so I'm looking forward to getting those under our belts. At some point you need to play against somebody else.
"We've had 12 practices. Coaching and putting stuff in is like a toolbox. You pick up your toolbox and what do you have in it? I have a lot of things in my personal toolbox, but as far as this team, there was nothing in it when we started. You start with things that are important to you.
"I like man-to-man defense and always have. I'm not averse to playing zone, but everything we are going to do on the court, we've had to put in and teach. There's man-to-man defense, man-to-man offense, secondary break, rebounding missed free throws, press offense, press defense, base line out of bounds plays, sideline out of bounds plays. It's hard sometimes to judge your progress because you're constantly teaching something.
"When we play against each other in scrimmages, we are to the point where we can bring in local referees to come in and officiate our scrimmages because there is so much emphasis and new rules that the referees have been hammered on all spring and summer and fall. You know they are going to call things a certain way. I want our guys to get used to that. I do know that we are a lot better today than we were before. The point guard position is very fluid. I'm not sure that we define what a "big man" is. I've gone from Dwight Howard to Chicken (Danrad) Knowles. I love Danrad. He is my guy."