In a game filled with episodic underachievement from the Houston Cougars, this moment might have been viewed as just one more disappointment on the way to departing the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Trailing Rutgers by five points with 2:53 left in their second round game, star guard Quentin Grimes approached the foul line with an opportunity to cut that down to the margin of a single 3-point shot. Grimes, normally 77 percent reliable, missed both free throws.
That could have been it for Houston, the American Athletic Conference champs and the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Midwest Region. Grimes is nothing, though, if not resilient. He fought for his own rebound, restarted the Cougars offense and, within seconds, fired in a 3-pointer that appeared to convince Rutgers that it would not be holding that lead.
Which is how Quentin Grimes came to be the best basketball story of the Sweet 16.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of a young man from where he started to where he is now,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said this week. “And it’s all driven by his work ethic. Before practice, during practice, after practice, year-round — I don’t think he ever goes two days where he’s not in the gym.
“In an era where guys have a million distractions, that kid’s distraction is the gym.”
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There surely are charming stories throughout the Sweet 16 about family connections or obstacles overcome, the kind of stuff they specialize in when presenting the Olympic Games.
In the purest basketball sense, though, Grimes is what college basketball is all about: developing as a player to the fullest extent, however long that might take — so long as it occurs within the allotted four seasons of eligibility.
Grimes arrived in college basketball on the same night as Zion Williamson, in the same place. They were part of the 2018 Champions Classic at Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and Grimes was so outstanding that he nearly stole the show before Zion could even take the court.
Ranked by a consensus of recruiting analysts as the No. 8 player in his class, Grimes started his first college game for Bill Self at Kansas against Michigan State and lit up the Spartans by hitting 6-of-10 from 3-point range. His muscular build and compact form appeared to be indestructible. He scored 21 points and passed for three assists — and a star was born.
It just turned out to be Zion, not Quentin. That night really was as good as it would get for Grimes as a Kansas freshman. He scored in double figures just 12 times in the remaining 35 games. He made only five of his next 28 3-point attempts, six times finishing without a three in that 10-game stretch. He shot 34 percent from long range for the season.
What was supposed to be easy — come to college, dominate, file for early entry, be called as a lottery pick by NBA commissioner Adam Silver — had become an expected, unwelcome challenge.
Grimes placed his name in the 2019 NBA Draft, and it seemed from afar that he would do as so many other recent freshman prospects have done: get out of the collegiate game, whether ready for the NBA or not, and see how it all worked out. Instead, Grimes chose to withdraw from the early entry list, then transfer closer to his home in The Woodlands, Texas. He chose Houston.
Grimes told ESPN.com last season that he had not been fixated on being one-and-done as a KU freshman, but it was apparent that he could not make himself comfortable in the Kansas offense.
“Every situation isn’t always the right fit for the person’s particular skill set,” Marshall Grimes, Quentin’s father, told ESPN. “Coach Self is a great coach. He’s a Hall of Fame coach. Most of the people there are really good people.”
It took a while at Houston for Grimes to again become the player who’d been so enthusiastically endorsed by scouts, but his assimilation as a Cougar was immediate.
“Coming in, I was kind of like a freshman in a sense,” Grimes told reporters this week. “I was kind of just learning everything, learning what coach Sampson wants every day in practice. Really trying to get a feel, get comfortable, and that’s kind of what I did this year.
“Some teams might get jealous or might get egotistical about another player coming in. But they embraced me like I’d been there already. It’s kind of just made the transition easy.”
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As a sophomore last season, he averaged 12.1 points and shot 32.6 percent from deep. Sampson saw that it would require some work to repair Grimes’ damaged confidence. Without belief in the infallibility of the next attempt, without the knack for forgetting about the shot just missed, no shooter can thrive.
“I think there was some disappointment in him from a lot of people because he didn’t live up to other people’s expectations,” Sampson said. “Since he’s come here, what we’ve been able to convince him to do is let his work and his preparation drive his confidence. He’s playing with great confidence.”
Grimes gives a special mention to assistant coach Quannas White, the point guard on Oklahoma’s 2002 Final Four team and a member of the UH staff since 2017, who takes on the responsibility of coaching Grimes on his jumper.
“I just feel like there’s never a day off,” Grimes said, and he meant that as a compliment and not complaint. “Every day, we’re working on getting to my spots, where I like to get it: before practice every day, after practice every day. He never lets me slack off, even on days that I’m tired. He never lets me go slow. It’s always 110 percent. I just feel like always having those guys pushing you, always kind of seeing what’s in you that you might not bring out yourself, I think that’s the main key that kind of stands out in this program.”
Grimes and the Cougars next will play in the Midwest Region semifinal Saturday night against Syracuse. A 6-5, 210-pound guard, he is averaging 18.1 points and 6.0 rebounds. He connects on 41.7 percent of his 3-point attempts. He scored 22 points in the Rutgers game, 21 in the narrow AAC semifinal victory over Memphis that propelled Houston to the league tournament title, and 17 in the season-ending win over the Tigers that kept alive Houston’s hopes of a No. 2 NCAA seed. He rarely has endured a rough night in one of the Cougars’ biggest games.
For all of this and more, he was named a third-team All-America by all four major selectors recognized by the NCAA, including Sporting News. If third-team seems meager, remember that makes a player one of the top 15 out of more than 4,000 Division I players. Grimes also is a finalist, and possibly the favorite, for the Jerry West Award, presented by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame to the top shooting guard in college basketball.
That’s who Houston had at the line in those closing minutes against Rutgers, and the expectation after seeing him at work this year was that it surely would all work out. It did, just not as planned.