The Houston Cougars come into this basketball season with a new coach. They have new players, and supposedly a new culture. But some things never change, and just as with last season, the Cougars are going to lose a lot of games.
Kelvin Sampson's the new guy in charge. The former assistant coach for the Houston Rockets, Sampson's had numerous NCAA stops, getting Oklahoma and Indiana into the NCAA tourney on multiple occasions. But he lost two of the team's best players shortly after he was hired when TaShawn Thomas transferred to Oklahoma and Danuel House transferred to Texas A&M. Another key player, L.J. Rose, has a broken foot and is out for the foreseeable future. And if the season started today, walk-on Wes VanBeck would be seeing major minutes at point guard.
"We're building this program," Sampson said Tuesday. "This year is what it is. We're establishing culture and getting these guys to play the way we want to play. When people see our style of play, they're going to be excited to watch us. This is going to be a fun team to watch. I'm excited about it."
Sampson promises the style of play will be a fast-paced offense featuring lots of three pointers. That's based on the type of talent he has coupled with the fact that the team's not fit to run a half-court offense (fans who sat through last season can attest to that). It's a squad of junior college players, transfers and the players remaining from last season's squad.
"Our team presently is not set up to play the half-court," Sampson said. "We don't have those kinds of players. We are very athletic; that is a strength of ours. The pace we want to play at, the shots we want to take is something that we are going to live with. We're going to shoot a lot of threes. We're going to play as quickly as we can. We have some set rules. For instance, the ball has to be across half-court in three seconds or less, make or miss. We want to get the ball up the court quickly."
Sampson's been away from the college game for a few years -- he was hit with a five-year show cause penalty by the NCAA for recruiting violations while he was coaching at Indiana (the penalty essentially meant that Sampson couldn't coach in the NCAA for five years). During that time he's served as an NBA assistant for Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, Scott Skiles in Milwaukee and Kevin McHale in Houston. "The thing that I think the NBA has done for me is open my eyes up to the importance of pace and space," Sampson said. "Pace is your tempo, how quickly do you want to play. A lot of teams talk about playing fast, but the first time you run them down the court a few times, guys miss a shot and the coaches want to slow them down. We are committed to playing fast. That's who we are."
What the Cougars also are is a team playing in the American Athletic Conference, home to NCAA champion Connecticut, major basketball powerhouses Memphis and Cincinnati, and up-and-coming SMU, coached by the legendary Larry Brown. It's a conference stacked with talented players and a conference where the games are nationally televised spectacles on ESPN. So expecting a lot of UH wins this season is probably a bit of a stretch.
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The Cougars will get wins this season due to an incredibly weak non-conference schedule featuring the likes of Murray State, Morgan State, Harvard, Texas-Pan American, HBU, Abilene Christian, Arkansas-Bluff and Mississippi Valley State. Sampson said the school attempted to up the quality of its out-of-conference schedule, but that the attempts were rebuffed.
"We had agreements to play Georgetown and LSU this year; those fell through," he said. "We had a contract, allegedly, to play in a tournament in Los Angeles, open [the] season; that fell through."
Kelvin Sampson is just the latest man to come in and try to fill the shoes of the legendary Guy V. Lewis. He's had past success, just like Tom Penders and Pat Foster had past success. He's had NCAA issues, just like James Dickey. He takes coaching seriously, unlike Clyde Drexler. And he's a guy used to coaching on a big stage, something that only Penders had of that past group of coaches. None of these guys have truly succeeded at UH -- Foster and Penders routinely got UH into the postseason (they were the only coaches to get UH into the NCAA Tourney since Lewis's departure) but they were never really accepted by UH fandom -- and some of them failed spectacularly.
The season tips off on Saturday, November 8 with UH hosting an exhibition against North Alabama. It's probably best not to expect much from the Cougars this season, but Houston fans haven't really expected much from the basketball team in several years.