UH Basketball: It’s All About “The Little Things.”

Two stars of the No. 1-ranked UH men’s basketball team share insights leading up to March Madness.

By Tyler Hicks

A photograph of a home UH basketball game, with an arena full of UH fans cheering on the team.

It was a late February day at the University of Houston Fertitta Center, and hordes of fans, shrouded in red, had shown up to cheer on their Cougars. The opponent was a talented Iowa State team, and the electricity coursing through each of the 7,000 attendees underscored what was on everyone’s mind:

March Madness is almost here.

This is the time of year when basketball teams either wilt under the spotlight or establish enviable momentum. And for the latter, you need steady hands at the top.

Coaches are critical, of course, but in clutch moments, when there’s a razor-thin margin between glory and “there’s always next year,” you need athletes with cool heads and team-first mentalities.

You need players like Jamal Shead and LJ Cryer.

The Cougars were in command for much of the contest against Iowa State, but just when you thought they’d pull away for good, the Cyclones would come storming back. That was the situation late in the second half, when Iowa State cut the Cougars’ lead to five points. A Cyclone slammed the ball home for two crucial points, and for just a second, the red-clothed crowd let doubt interrupt their fervor.

But the Cougars answered.

Shooting guard LJ Cryer, a Baylor transfer whose thousand-watt smile rivals the shiny championship ring he won at his former school, dished the ball down low to talented teammate J’Wan Roberts, a fearsome forward.

UH basketball player LJ Cryer holding the basketball during a game.

UH basketball player LJ Cryer.

UH basketball player LJ Cryer.

Roberts scored. Fervor restored.

Then, moments later, with the Cyclones threatening once more, speedy point guard Jamal Shead cut into the paint on a drive designed to draw a perimeter defender. At the last possible moment, just as two opponents closed in, Shead passed the rock to guard Mylik Wilson.

Wilson nailed the three, and the crowd erupted.

Moments like these have the UH faithful dreaming of a return to the Final Four. Cryer and Shead aren’t just scorers; they consistently find ways to elevate their teammates and secure a win for the Cougars. That’s precisely what they did against the Cyclones, boosting their team’s record to 23-3 and a No. 1 ranking.

But if you ask either guard, they won’t talk much about the Big Dance or the all-important Big 12 Conference tournament. They won’t talk much about personal recognition either, even though both are in the running for some of college basketball’s most prestigious awards.

Instead, they’ll talk about their teammates, their coaches and the little things:

Those “countless hours” spent toiling in the gym, working on the fundamentals that lead to primetime plays.

“Those countless hours,” Shead says, “are starting to show themselves.”

UH basketball player Jamal Shead with his hands in the air during a home basketball game at UH.

UH basketball player Jamal Shead.

UH basketball player Jamal Shead.

Different Paths to Stardom

Cryer and Shead have plenty in common. Both are 6’1” guards with explosive potential. Both started their college careers as role players and both went from Texas high school stardom to the NCAA Final Four.  Plus, both come from athletic families: Shead’s older brother played college hoops, while Cryer’s father played college football.

Yet their paths to this point are wildly different.

After a celebrated career at Morton Ranch High School in Katy, Cryer enrolled at Baylor and came off the bench for a team that ultimately won the tournament. His 2021 season was a massive improvement; his points per game skyrocketed by 10. The next year was more of the same: Cryer, now a starter, averaged 15 points per contest while playing every game. Still, he yearned for improvement, and when he declared for the NBA Draft, the scouts’ feedback solidified it:

His defense needed some work. Instead of returning to Baylor, Cryer entered the transfer portal and visited UH, a mere stone’s throw from his high school stomping grounds. A meeting with Coach Kelvin Sampson sealed the deal.

“This is a great place for me because of Coach,” he says. “When I came for my visit, he was already coaching me, showing me how I could improve my defense. He doesn’t sugarcoat it; it’s an honest relationship.”

Sampson has a knack for helping his players fine-tune their game and maximize their potential. His legendary resume includes over 700 wins, tourney appearances with four universities and several players currently active in the NBA. Sampson himself served in the sport’s highest league during a six-year tenure as an assistant coach for the Bucks and the Rockets. When he returned to the college game to coach UH, he spent his first couple of seasons walking up and down Cullen Boulevard and other popular student destinations before home games. The marching band accompanied him.

“I would go disrupt the student center,” he told UH’s magazine. “I’d go into classes. I’d walk around campus just begging people to come to the game.”

According to Shead, Sampson’s starting point guard for the last three seasons, the head coach is the epitome of consistency and commitment.

“You see the type of energy and the type of person he is every single day, whether he’s sick, whether he’s cold outside, whether he's having a bad day,” Shead told the Houston Chronicle. “That guy coached us two hours after his sister passed away in the conference tournament. That speaks to the person he is, so we’ve just been trying to figure him out and do everything we can for him, because he does everything he can for us.”

“This is a great place for me because of Coach. When I came for my visit, he was already coaching me, showing me how I could improve my defense. He doesn’t sugarcoat it; it’s an honest relationship.”
–LJ Cryer

A UH fan in the stands holding a large cardboard cutout of Coach Sampson.

Like Cryer, Shead says he has a special relationship with Sampson:

By emulating his head coach, the team’s floor general is able to block out the noise and control the game. But it wasn’t always the case.

In an interview for this story, Shead recounts how he was “getting [his] butt kicked every day in practice” during his first year on the team. Oddly enough, that team would ultimately lose in the Final Four to LJ Cryer’s Baylor Bears. Shead’s experience was limited, though; he shot well, but started only twice that season while averaging less than 10 minutes per game.

Looking back, he says he needed to become more mature and improve his focus. So, he worked at it, spending untold hours in the gym to enhance his shooting and ball handling and hone his defensive game. Those hours started showing up on the stat sheet, and now Shead is known to make an impact all over the floor. One night he might nab several key steals to buoy his team’s defensive effort, and the next he’ll put up 20 points while dishing a half-dozen assists. Some nights he’ll do all three.

In other words, he has become the kind of complete player that once showed him up in practice, and it’s easy to see why he is in the running for the Bob Cousy Award, an annual prize recognizing the nation’s best point guard. He says he doesn’t need that recognition, though — particularly when Sampson has already declared him the best in the game.

Cryer, too, is a viable awards contender: He might win the Jerry West Award, honoring the college game’s best shooting guard.

The awards buzz is a blessing, Shead says, but it’s not what they’re focused on.

“Everybody's one-track minded right now, but it’s all the same track,” he explains. They want to win the conference (no small feat for their first year in the Big 12), and then they’ll focus on the next team milestone: March Madness.

“I’m just focused on being a positive light whenever I can and making sure everyone knows what they should be doing,” Shead says. “I want to be a source of positivity for my teammates.”

 “Everybody's one-track minded right now, but it’s all the same track.”
–Jamal Shead

If anything, Shead’s recent success has only fueled his desire to try harder. He’s still putting in countless hours in the gym, focusing on “the little things” that lead to big wins. When he’s not in the gym, you’ll probably find him analyzing tape, channeling his inner Kelvin Sampson and determining precisely how he can lock down his next opponent’s offense.

The potent combo of his positive mindset and his in-depth analysis paid dividends when his team lost key player Terrance Arceneaux to an injury. Arceneaux, one of the team’s leading rebounders, tore his Achilles in mid-December when the Cougars were still undefeated.

It would have been understandable if such a loss caused the team to falter, or at least dimmed their morale. But while the players and coaching staff were upset, they doubled down on their devotion, rattling off three more wins and overcoming a pair of road losses in early January to eventually battle their way to the top of their conference.

“That was our biggest challenge, for sure,” Shead says, referring to the loss of Arceneaux. “But we didn’t let us keep it down. We got back out there for Terrance, for our fans. You gotta take what the game gives you, adjust, and keep moving.”

Shead gives UH students and fans a lot of credit. They’ve packed the Fertitta Center night after night, Shead notes, giving the team one of the best home-court advantages in the country.

“It’s a testament to how connected we are,” he shares. “They step their game up for us.”

“You gotta take what the game gives you, adjust, and keep moving.” – Jamal Shead

Three UH fans in red shirts in the stands holding up the cougar hand sign.

Cryer concurs.

“I felt welcome from day one,” he says of his transfer. “I felt like the fans, and everyone around here, made the transition a little smoother. No change is going to be easy, but it made it easier to know I was wanted here.”

Cryer also credits Sampson’s staff, who spend hours breaking down film, pursuing every possible edge they can give their players. Sampson has also continued to “keep it real” throughout the season, running Cryer through detailed tapes of his performance and calling out where he should give more effort. It’s clear Sampson’s tenacious focus on defense has permeated every aspect of the program. For instance, chatting with Cryer feels like talking to an old-school basketball coach, one who is eager to preach the enduring value of defense, defense, defense.

“If you don’t buckle down on the defensive side of the ball,” Cryer says, “you’ll get exposed.”

It’s difficult to see a team like this getting exposed. They have a veteran coach at the helm, as well as an exciting mix of young talent and guys who have been on the sport’s biggest stages — and are hungry to get back. However, despite that hunger, they’re still taking things day by day and practicing an impressive level of humility.

After the game against the Cyclones, in which the point guard scored 26 points, Shead was heralded by ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt as one of the most exciting college basketball players in the country. The Shead name was everywhere, but the man himself demurred.

It’s clear Sampson’s tenacious focus on defense has permeated every aspect of the program.

“I feel like I just took over the game at the right time,” he says. “I was blessed and fortunate enough to take over the game when I did.”

Cryer echoed his comments, rotating the spotlight away from himself and onto his team.

“We’re leaning on one another when we’re not playing our best, then we’re leaning on each other when we are,” Cryer explains. “We’re staying level-headed and putting together good practices all the way up to the game. That’s really all there is to it.”

You can draw a through line between this seamless, streamlined approach and the team’s victory over Iowa State. You can do the same with the Baylor game, too:

Several days after defeating the Cyclones, Cryer and company scored 82 points and beat his alma mater. They moved from No. 2 in the country to No. 1, and the buzz continued – for Cryer, for Shead and for the team itself.

For now, though, the talk of awards and titles can wait.

For now, they’re focused on the little things:


The savory taste of Chick-fil-A (Cryer’s favorite) after a long day of drills.

And, for Shead, maybe a little bowling.

“I love bowling,” he says, adding several Os to the word “love.” Whenever they get the chance, he and his teammates escape to the bowling alley at Student Center South and play a few rounds to decompress.

“It’s fun to compete at something you’re not all great at,” he says.

And as for bowling being a notoriously difficult game to master?

“That’s the point: It’s not easy,” he explains. “When you have a good roll, or a good game, you feel good about yourself. Everything’s flowing just right.”

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