Jamal Shead's development propels Houston to second straight No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament

HOUSTON (AP) — Jamal Shead wasn’t anywhere near the player he is now when he joined the Houston Cougars in 2020. His coach offers an unvarnished opinion about his talented guard.

“When he came in, I thought he was a long way away,” coach Kelvin Sampson said. “I thought his immaturity was an issue. His day-to-day practice habits were an issue.”

Four years later, the 21-year-old Shead barely resembles that freshman player, and his leadership and defensive tenacity has the second-ranked Cougars heading into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed for a second straight season.

Shead, who was named a first-team AP All-American on Tuesday, will lead Houston (30-4) in the first round of the tournament Friday night against 16-seed Longwood. The Cougars are in the tournament for a school-record sixth straight season.

Sampson reflected on Shead’s journey this week after he received his latest accolade in a season where he’s already become the first player in Big 12 history to win player of the year and defensive player of the year honors the same year. Sampson said Shead's parents didn't baby him even during those freshman struggles.

“He didn’t have anybody to call home and cry to or to listen to excuses,” Sampson said. “That was never going to be an issue. His mom and dad are unusual in that they say the coach is always right. They knew he needed the culture that we’ve established here.”

So, with the help of Houston’s veterans, Shead began to develop and by January of his first season things started to click for him. By February, he started challenging the veterans or as Sampson recalls: “kicking their butts in practice some days.”

“I think our program raised that kid from being a kid to being a man and this is the end result,” Sampson said. “I think it is a great story in that when things were really tough for him, he didn’t quit, he didn’t transfer.”

Shead admitted that dealing with Sampson’s strong coaching style took a while to adjust to and he still remembers a colorful one-liner he used to call him soft back in his early days on the team.

Now that he’s grown into the team’s leader, he appreciates how Sampson coached him.

“He has the utmost belief in you and the utmost trust in you when you earn it. And he never wavers with that,” Shead said. “That guy has trusted me since Day 1. He’s taught me so much. He might get on me the hardest, but I know it’s out of love. I know he loves me, so I never take it personally.”

Shead has a wealth of tournament experience after reaching the Final Four as a reserve as a freshman. He moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore when the Cougars advanced to the Elite Eight and won American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year honors last season when Houston made it to the Sweet 16.

He leads the Cougars this season by averaging 13.1 points a game and averages 6.2 assists and 2.3 steals. He has scored in double figures in 25 games this season, including 11 of the last 12.

He’s confident that Houston is ready for a deep tournament run.

“Coach says it all the time, he doesn’t compare teams, so I don’t really try to,” he said. “But I think this team is prepared because of our mindset right now, our preparation is always good because we have the best coach in America and probably the best coaching staff in America. So, our preparation is always going to be good because they’re going to have us ready … it’s all about who’s going to be the toughest and I think we’ll be one of the toughest teams out there.”

The biggest factor in that toughness is the team’s defense, which is led by Shead. Houston leads the nation in holding teams to just 57 points a game.

“Our defense is our defense,” Shead said. “We’re No. 1 in the nation. We take pride in that. We turn you over, cool. But we’re going to try to make you miss. We’re going to make it as hard as possible every possession.”

And the coach who once thought Shead was a “long way away” from contributing to his team, now revels at the player he has become.

“The three things Jamal learned to control was Jamal and then his attitude and then his effort,” Sampson said. “When those three things became his strength, he became the best defensive guard I’ve ever coached and the greatest leader I’ve ever coached.”


AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness