Photo courtesy UH
There are a couple of things working in the team's favor. First and foremost being the return of guards Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis. Coleman, a 6'4" senior, was the C-USA Newcomer of the Year last season as well as first team All-Conference USA. He was one of the conference's most versatile players last season, finsihing third in scoring with 19.4 points a game while finishing fourth with 8.2 rebounds. And Lewis, a 6'4" senior, was third-team All-Conference USA and made the C-USA All-Defensive Team. Lewis also averaged 18.0 points a game -- fourth in the conference in scoring -- and nailed 93 shots from behind the three-point line.
"In terms of basketball now, there are very few players as talented as Aubrey," Penders told Hair Balls. "And it's all because he's put a lot of hard work into it. I can't take credit for it. I can tell him what I think he needs to work on. The reason is we have these rules where we can't work with players for like five months a year. So you give them a program, and you tell them what they need to work on, and Aubrey has worked on it. And so has Kelvin. I think both of them have dramatically improved their games."
But what has Penders most excited about Coleman and Lewis this year isn't their skill on the court, it's the role they've been taking off of the court and in the locker room.
"I've already seen the leadership," he said. "Aubrey was a first-year player last year, and he didn't feel like it was his place to be a leader. But he always played hard. So he led in that form. Kelvin Lewis, very quiet last year. Much more vocal this year. They're taking ownership of the team which is what you want."
But two players do not make a basketball team. Penders feels that he has a complete squad this season. He is high on returning players Sean Coleman and Zamal Nixon and he thinks he has one of his best recruiting classes in his time here in Houston led by Kirk Van Slyke, Kendrick Washington, Kahmell Broughton, and Maurice McNeil.
"We've got a very nice group of freshmen and new players -- a couple of junior-college players," he said.
And while there is no seven-footer to fill the proverbial big man center slot, Penders says the team is big and does has bulk. "There aren't going to be many bigger guys in Conference USA than this guy [Kendrick Washington]. He's 6-7, 270. And then Kahmell Broughton is 6-7, 255, and he's got like three-percent body fat. You've got some bulk. As far as size, we've got two 6-9 guys who are going to be in the rotation, if not starting -- Kirk Van Slyke the freshman is 6-9, and Maurice McNeil from junior college [San Jac]....That's more size than we've had overall. So we have more height than we've had. And we have more bulk than we've had."
This Cougars team should be the type of team that Penders has become known for, a running team that is willing to shoot. At least that's what Pender hopes.
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"This is a great running team. They're really good up and down the floor. And we shoot the ball. On the offensive side we're a very good perimeter shooting team, and we run the floor. We've got in Van Slyke a kid that can really shoot the three. We've got Kelvin Lewis who can really shoot the three. We've got Sean Coleman. Aubrey's now expanded his game....We're very fast and very unselfish. Very, very unselfish. We've got a lot of guys that can hit the open man and are playing offensively the game right."
The key to making the NCAA tournament is going to be winning C-USA, and Penders agrees with the consensus that the Cougars are one of the league's contenders for that automatic slot along with Tulsa, UTEP, and Memphis. He gives Tulsa the nod because Tulsa will be hosting the conference tournament.
And the team's non-conference schedule is supposedly the toughest in C-USA, which should help with the all important RPI -- the better the RPI, the better the odds of a non-major conference school making the Big Dance.
"We're a fun team to watch," Penders said. "Fans will get their money's worth." And the fans can start getting their money's worth on Tuesday night as the Cougars take on Nicholls State at Hofheinz Pavilion at 7:00 p.m..