Kelvin Sampson has three press conferences scheduled each week on the court inside the Guy V. Lewis Development Facility at the University of Houston.

As head coach of the men's basketball team, Sampson said he is reminded of the program's rich history every time he walks into the practice facility for those weekly pressers.

"Over my shoulder are the banners," Sampson said. "The last time Houston went to the (NCAA) tournament, I see 2010 on that banner. Knowing that there's going to be a 2018 on that banner is just gratifying."

This past Sunday, Sampson's team was one of 68 squads selected to compete in college basketball's premier event. The Cougars (26-7) are the No. 6 seed in the West Regional and will play 11th-seeded San Diego State (22-10) at 7:20 p.m. Thursday in Wichita, Kansas.

"Our kids were all sitting in front of the TV and when they saw that U of H flash on the screen, I saw the looks in those kids' eyes and I had so many emotions run through me," said Sampson, who is in his fourth season with the program.

"I thought about my family's journey when we started here at Houston and all the joy that goes into building a program like this. I also thought about my mom (Eva) and dad (Ned)."

Sampson has taken 14 teams to the NCAA Tournament. This will be his first appearance since taking Indiana to the big dance in the 2006-07 season.

The 62-year-old Robeson County native and graduate of UNC Pembroke plans to make the NCAA Tournament a frequent destination for the Cougars, who are in the event for the first time since 2010 and just the second time since 1992.

Houston hasn't won a tournament game since the rim-shaking days of Phi Slama Jama in 1984, which ended the Cougars' run of three straight Final Fours.

Sampson said a commitment by school administrators to build the Guy V. Lewis Development Facility and transform Hofheinz Pavilion into Fertitta Center set in motion the change of a once-storied program.

"When you take over a program, there's no guarantees," Sampson said. "Having done this at Montana Tech and Washington State, and a little bit at Oklahoma, we've built programs up so we had a plan coming in.

"The most important thing for our program here at the University of Houston was our administration making a commitment to the basketball program. I've always said that coaches win games, but administrators win championships. They have to give you the resources to compete. I knew if I could get them to do that then we had a chance because this is a great job. We're in one of the greatest cities in the United States. I think it's been a great marriage."

In the time since that first year, Sampson has led the Cougars to three consecutive 20-win seasons. Picked to finish sixth in the American Athletic Conference in the preseason, Houston notched 24 wins this regular season — including wins over a pair of top-10 teams in Wichita State and Cincinnati — en route to second-place finish in the league standings.

Sampson was named the AAC coach of the year after leading Houston to its best season in a quarter-century.

But his favorite moment came when the Cougars traveled to East Carolina on Jan. 14.

"My favorite game all year long is when we go to Greenville to play East Carolina. We see between 75 and 100 family and friends that make the trip from Pembroke to Greenville," Sampson said. 

"That really means a lot to me. There's a difference between sitting at home, wishing somebody well, versus getting in the car and driving to Greenville. It says a lot."

He's hopeful the Cougars will give those faithful supporters something to cheer about this week against the Aztecs, who enter the tournament on a nine-game winning streak, including three at the Mountain West Conference tournament to claim the league's automatic bid.

"You have to guard them," Sampson said of Houston's first-round opponent. "They're 6-11, 6-11 on the front line. They beat Gonzaga, they beat Nevada twice. Everybody's good once you make the NCAA Tournament. If we played them 10 times, they'd win five (games) and we'd win five, probably. That's how close it is. You just hope one of the five times you beat them is Thursday. In the tournament, your best players can't have off days. They have to step up and play well in those games."

All-AAC guard Rob Gray, a Forest City native, leads the way as one of four seniors for the Cougars. Each one of them believed in Sampson's vision and helped change the direction of a struggling program.

"You're so happy for your seniors and I think that's the biggest thing," Sampson said. "Rob Gray bought in to a vision. (Forward) Devin Davis bought in to a vision, along with (Forward) Nura Zanna and (guard) Wes VanBeck. Those guys came here and we didn't have a whole lot. They came here because they trusted Coach Sampson. Now, we can really sell our program and our future. That's exciting."

While he would love to add some hardware to the trophy case and fill some empty space on the walls of the gym with additional banners, Sampson said the team's journey to the tournament outweighs the importance of one game.

"I don't want our guys to be defined by 40 minutes," he said. ". ... it's a lot more important than that."

Staff writer Rodd Baxley can be reached at or 486-3519.