The Houston Cougars would be the unlikeliest champion in modern NCAA history

The Houston Cougars would be the unlikeliest champion in modern NCAA history

Coming off the high of 2023, the 2024 NBA Draft class is destined to be one of the most lifeless in modern history, which explains the predicament men’s college basketball has found itself in here in 2024. While the women are pumping out household names such as Caitlyn Clark, JuJu Watkins, Paige Bueckers and Angel Reese, men’s college basketball is almost devoid of a single headline star. The repeat winner of the Player of the Year will likely be Purdue’s Zach Edey, a senior obelisk in the low post who would have been a top-5 pick 20 years ago, if not the number one overall prospect. Today, he’s an anachronistic souvenir.

There’s no better time to be a Houston Cougar, though. UConn and Purdue may have a case for being the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, but In a season without main characters, Houston is college hoops’ Chekov’s Gunman. Kelvin Sampson’s nondescript collection of starters has no marquee stars at the next level, but appears poised to steal the show.

Next season, Duke will introduce Cooper Flagg to the nation as the first white college hoops phenom in a generation and Rutgers will pair dynamic wings Dylan Harper and Ace Bailey, but the 2024 NCAA Tournament’s most prominent character may be a center from Indiana State nicknamed Cream Abdul Jabbar, who may never play a second of NBA basketball. John Calipari’s diamond-studded Kentucky roster may turn out to be another cubic zirconia knockoff.

Sampson has fermented water into wine with a roster devoid of any fringe prospects. Yet, in their first season as a Big 12 member, the Cougars have left an impression the year after losing Marcus Sasser and one-and-done forward Jarace Walker to the NBA. The Cougars have held down the top spot in the conference for most of the season, been the No. 1 in Ken Pom’s rankings since December, and are the Associated Press’ No. 1 team in the country.

They’ve done all that without a single projected first-round pick in the upcoming draft or in 2025. If Kelvin Sampson can pull a championship out of his hat at the conclusion of March Madness, it would set a new gold standard for sideline shot callers in the modern era. Since 1976, every single champion in the modern era has fielded at least one first-round pick. Technically, Bob Knight’s 1987 Indiana team didn’t feature a future first-round pick in its rotation, but only because Steve Alford was the 26th pick in a 23-team league. Butler would have been the first in 2011 if they hadn’t developed a fear of buckets for a 13-minute, 26-second span during the second half of the 2011 national title game.

Houston guard Terrance Arceneaux is the highest-rated high school recruit on Sampson’s roster. The 6-foot-6 guard flew out of the gates as a freshman, but his momentum for the 2023 draft stalled out the back half of the season and in December, he tore his Achilles. Barring a quantum leap between his sophomore and junior seasons while recovering from a devastating injury, he won’t justify a first-round grade next year.

Defensive skeleton key JoJo Tugler is already the most demoralizing quick-twitch shot blocker in college hoops as a freshman.

The 6-foot-8 Houston native with a 7-foot-6 wingspan looks like he was 3-D printed to fit into modern switch-heavy NBA defenses, despite his raw skill set. NBA franchises fall in love with wingspans and Tugler has the tools in spades. If he flaps those appendages he could manifest tornado winds over the Gulf of Mexico or redirect a shot or two.

Including Tuglers’s potential, Jamel Shead is Houston’s most NBA-ready prospect and as the tip of the spear for the nation’s No.1 defense, his influence on the defensive end permeates through the roster. After four years in the limelight, scouts know what they’re getting in Houston’s 6-foot-1 table setter. Shead’s a tenacious point-of-attack defender and distributor, but relatively small in stature, and a streaky shooter behind the arc. The reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year is projected as a second-rounder or as an undrafted free agent. Meanwhile, former Baylor Bear, Houston’s leading scorer L.J. Cryer is a future undrafted free agent and a senior who will spend next season in the G-League or overseas.

The closest analog to Sampson’s Houston Cougars team are Tony Bennett’s 2019 Virginia Cavaliers and Scott Drew’s 2021 Baylor Bears units. Playing crushing defense, Bennett’s Virginia team battled their way to a national title the year after becoming the first No. 1 seed to be eliminated by a 16-seed. However, even that lineup included top-10 pick DeAndre Hunter, while ESPN rated Kyle Guy as a five-star recruit in college. Drew’s 2021 national championship team featured a slew of four-star commits, but was led by first-round pick Davion Mitchell. Winning a national title without a five-star recruit is incredibly rare. Winning one without a five-star recruit and a first-round pick is indistinguishable from magic.

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.