Houston players celebrate after beating Rutgers in a college basketball game in the second round of the NCAA tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis Sunday, March 21, 2021. Houston won 63-60. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Without question, the University of Houston men’s basketball team recaptured the love of the city this season.

How could the Cougars not?

Kelvin Sampson’s squad was dominant all season long and then put together a memorable run through the NCAA Tournament, advancing all the way to the Final Four for the first time since 1984 when a couple of future NBA Hall of Famers named Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler were holding court for UH. The No.2 seed Cougars’ run, of course, ended in the national semifinal round with a tough 78-59 loss to No.1 seed and eventual National Champions, Baylor.

But the positive is the future remains promising because Sampson has built more than a team. He has put together a program that is positioned to be dominant for years to come. Sure, the Cougars lose glue seniors like DeJon Jarreau, Justin Gorham and Fabian White, but with a team that will be built around explosive guards Quentin Grimes and Marcus Sasser there is an expectation the 2021-22 season will yield more of the same results.

The days of Sampson having to promote his program to the campus are gone. The Fertitta Center will again be rocking.

“The perception of our program has changed,” said Sampson, who completed his seventh season at UH. “And our program has changed. I can’t wait to play in front of sellouts next year. This is going to be exciting.”

Sasser, who had an impressive game in the loss to Baylor, says this year’s seniors have put them on the winning path.

“They led us and they taught us a lot for the upcoming years for the young guys,” he said. “We had a great run and just fell short this year.”

In addition to Sasser and Grimes, the Cougars will have a chance to expand the roles of youngsters like Jamal Shead, Tramon Mark, J’Wan Roberts and Kiyron Powell. They all received valuable experience in what Sampson considers a breakthrough season in which the Cougars excelled past their Elite Eight expectation to get to the all-important Final Four round of the NCAA Tournament.

That momentum can carry them through this offseason and into next season.

“We’re getting the next step,” said Sampson, whose team finished 28-4 this season. “Once we got to the Elite Eight, that’s where you want your program to be. You want it to improve, to get better. I know how difficult it is to get to a Final Four.”

But Sampson knows his team can’t take for granted that now a Final Four is promised next season. It will take a lot of hard work and a certain amount of luck. The team will also have to replace the leadership and defense of Jarreau.

The Cougars do have some promising incoming freshmen like Shadow Creek’s Ramon Walker and center Ja’Vier Francis who may help immediately.

“You just say, well, just make sure you can get back to the Final Four,” Sampson said. “May never go to a Final Four. Those are hard to get to. Look at all the teams that have never been to one. You don’t ever think those things are — that they owe you. Well, we got to one; we can get to another one. Maybe, maybe not.

“That’s why you focus on the things you can control and keep recruiting good kids, work on improving your roster, establishing chemistry, keep creating the right kind of culture with the right kind of kids. And who knows? You may.”