KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Of the four coaches who led their teams to the semifinals of the Midwest Region at the NCAA Tournament, the most unlikely of them might feel the most at home when he walks into T-Mobile Center on Friday night.
Sure, Kelvin Sampson has taken Oklahoma and Houston to the Final Four and is two wins away from guiding the Cougars back for the second time in three years. Miami coach Jim Larrañaga led George Mason to its own improbable Final Four in 2006 and had the Hurricanes a game away from the national semifinals last season.
Xavier's Sean Miller has reached the Elite Eight twice, once at Arizona and once in his first stint with the Musketeers.
Then there's Rodney Terry, the assistant-turned-savior of Texas, who not only kept the Longhorns from floundering after the firing of Chris Beard but has them thriving. The same coach that couldn't get Fresno State out of the first round, or get UTEP into the Big Dance, has the Longhorns playing in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2008.
At T-Mobile Center, no less, where they just cut down the nets as Big 12 champions less than two weeks ago.
“He embodies what we are and what we try to be every day,” said Timmy Allen, who leads the second-seeded Longhorns into Friday night's game against No. 3 seed Xavier. “Somebody who never shakes at adversity. Somebody who wakes up and tries to attack the day, to be great. When I've got somebody like that in my corner, I'll do anything for them.”
To be sure, there is a certain Lonestar State feel to the Midwest Region, where top-seeded Houston also will be trying to take another step toward a hometown Final Four when it plays No. 5 seed Miami in the other semifinal.
But there also is a feeling of been there, done that on the sidelines.
The 67-year-old Sampson, once a coaching pariah, has Houston standing alongside Gonzaga as the only programs to reach the Sweet 16 in the past four tournaments. And led by the dynamic backcourt of Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead, the Cougars are hoping to finally reach a Final Four with fans in attendance after losing in the national semifinals inside the COVID-19 “bubble” environment two years ago.
“Coach Sampson gives his all every day for us. It's only right for us to give our all for him," Tramon Mark said. “Everything he's done for us throughout the season, it's only right that we go out and play hard for him.”
That same feeling for Larrañaga exists at Miami, where the 73-year-old coach still relates to players that could be his grandkids. Larrañaga recently said he plans to coach “as long as the University of Miami would like me,” and given the way he's elevated the program from the depths of mediocrity, that could be a while.
Much like Sampson, Miller has had his share of off-the-court trouble, a big part of his downfall at Arizona.
Also much like Sampson's, his coaching acumen has never been questioned. He got Xavier to the Elite Eight in 2008, when he was just 39, and Arizona to regional semis in 2014 and ‘15 — though he has yet to make a Final Four.
It's among these esteemed coaches that Terry finds himself.
He barely had a winning record when he took over in December. There's every reason to believe, after two shots as a head coach, he never would have gotten another. Yet seizing an opportunity Terry never wanted — at least, in the manner he got it — the Longhorns have a chance to author a memorable ending to a season that began in turmoil.
“Any time you’re in a situation that I was in, I think, one, you just have to be yourself. I don’t think you try to be something that you’re not,” Terry said. "The other thing was continuing to have great chemistry. I think our staff, from the start, we were all committed to trying to try to have a great season and take this team as far as we could take them.
“So enjoy this process," Terry said. "You get a chance to do it maybe one time in your life. So just make the most of it.”
All-American guard Marcus Sasser, who has been dealing with a groin injury, and Houston point guard Jamal Shead, who has had a sore knee, said they are nearing full strength as they prepare to face the Hurricanes.
Sasser missed the AAC title game and the second half of the Cougars' NCAA Tournament opener, though he returned to score 22 against Auburn in the second round. Shead played both games last week and expects to be fully healthy.
PACK’S FINANCIAL PACKAGE
Miami guard Nijel Pack's transfer from Kansas State came with an $800,000 package in NIL money, one of the first deals widely publicized in the name, image and likeness era. And while Pack acknowledged the pressure to live up to expectations, he also said the publicity has “allowed me to look at things differently, made me mentally stronger.”
“My parents have helped me manage my money and are making sure I’m not out buying things I don’t need,” he said. “I’m set really well with school, and as long I can do things I do normally, there’s nothing I need to go out and purchase.”
AP Sports Writer Eric Olson contributed to this report. ___
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