The Houston Cougars officially opened up the basketball season this weekend, and though it wasn't always pretty, especially on Friday night, the team came away with two victories. And while head coach James Dickey and his players weren't always happy with the way they played, or with some of the decisions they made on the floor, the victories are something that they'll take any day.
Sunday's 88-68 win over Alcorn State was the more aesthetically pleasing of the two games. The Cougars struggled throughout that game just as much, if perhaps not more, than they did in Friday's 61-59 win over Nicholls State. But with about 12 minutes left in the second half on Sunday, it all seemed to click in to place and for the first time, the Cougars executed offensively and defensively as wanted by Dickey.
"I thought we played pretty well the last 12 minutes of the game there. At the start of the second half we were just trading baskets with them. We weren't guarding anybody. We were giving up lay-ups. We were pretty efficient offensively, but defensively we weren't very good. We finally locked it down."
The Cougars are going to be a different animal on the basketball floor this season. The stress is on defense, and the players insist that everything they are doing, or plan to do, on offense will come from the defensive play. But for what they want to do on offense to work, after the defense has done its job, they have to play with efficiency.
The Cougars aren't going to be like the team from the last several seasons. There's not going to be one player dominating the ball, taking shots from all over the court and leaving teammates to clean up the mess. This is a Cougar team where the ball needs to be distributed among all of the players, and the shot needs to be taken in the flow of the offense.
The best illustration of what Dickey wants came during the second half on Friday night. With the Cougars struggling and down by 10 points, shooting guard Adam Brown went off for 11 straight points to put the Cougars in the lead. The beauty of Brown's 11 points were that they came from all over the court and with the assistance of his teammates. He drove the lane and took a pass for a lay-up. He flew off of a pick and took a pass for a three-pointer. He stole a pass and took it in for points. He hit free throws. At no point did he dribble the ball for the length of the shot clock before putting up an ill-advised three-pointer from the baseline.
"Adam really competed hard and that's what you want out of your seniors," Dickey said. "He was playing with a lot of confidence and our guys did a good job finding him when he was on his scoring run. He played really good defense...as well. We want him to learn the offense and run it but we also want our players to take what the defense gives you. Adam did a really nice job doing that tonight."
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The biggest difference between the two games, besides the margin of victory, was that the Cougars cut down on their turnovers, going from 26 on Friday night to 13 on Sunday afternoon. This Cougar team will probably turn the ball over more often than it has in previous seasons, but the turnovers so far aren't coming from overly sloppy play, they're coming from players trying to do something they haven't been required to do to often in the pass. And that's because they're concentrating on making passes and trying to find their teammates when in the past a turnover would have been the result of a bad shot.
For the Cougars to continue being successful this season, they're going to need to continue following the pattern that Dickey wants. The team doesn't have the talent of last year. They're missing that one player who can take over a game and seemingly score at will, so to stay in games, to win games, the Cougars are going to need to execute the offense, find the open player who has the best shot, and shut down the opposition on defense.
The Cougars are a far ways from perfect. They're probably going to lose a lot of games because they lack the overall talent of their opposition -- especially when conference play hits -- but they're going to be a far better team by the time the season ends than they were last season. And given time, the promise for greater things is there.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Sophomore forward Kendrick Washington, the team's only true physical presence on the floor, missed both games due to a suspension for an unspecified violation of team rules. Dickey said that Washington might travel with the team for their game at Louisiana Tech on Wednesday, however, Dickey would not commit to Washington playing in the game if he does travel with the team....senior guard Zamal Nixon established his career-high with 10 assists on Sunday afternoon. His previous high was seven assists, which he had accomplished on three occasions....senior forward Maurice McNeil had double-double points and rebounds in both games, which is his career best. And yesterday McNeil was named the C-USA player of the week....the women's basketball team opened up their season on Sunday evening, defeating UT-Arlington by the score of 88-48. The next game for both teams is tomorrow night. The women are visiting New Mexico State and the men will be visiting Louisiana Tech.