The Cougars won't play at Hofheinz this season, but they still hope to shake lots of hands after games.
The Cougars won't play at Hofheinz this season, but they still hope to shake lots of hands after games.
Photo by John Royal

Lots of Changes Greet the Start of College Basketball in Houston

The Houston Cougars are playing in a different arena. The Rice Owls have a new coach and lots and lots of new players. For the TSU Tigers it’s essentially more of the same. And Friday night, the 2017-2018 college basketball season officially gets underway.

The Houston Cougars are coming off two straight NIT appearances. But the goal this year is a return to the NCAA Tournament, which the Cougars have not made since 2010, the last season of Tom Penders’ tenure as head coach. Kelvin Sampson once again coaches the squad, and it should be able to play with pace. Guards Rob Gray and Galen Robinson, Jr. will be the backcourt keys while the hope is that forward Devin Davis will be healthy the entire season so as to provide UH with some inside scoring punch.

Sampson has brought in several big men as part of his goal to bring more muscle and rebounding strength to the squad. Breon Brady is the scorer of the group, Chris Harris, Jr. is the rim-protector, Nura Zanna the best rebounder, and Valentine Sangoyomi provides some experience. UH will likely go to a committee approach for them when it comes to playing time, while having them as a group improves the depth of the roster.

And while striving for a NCAA post-season berth, the Cougars will have to deal not only with playing games off-campus this season, but will also have to handle a new conference foe in Wichita State, one of the nation’s elite mid-major programs taking a step up to a more highly-regarded conference. Most of UH’s home games this season will be played at TSU’s H&PE Arena while Hofheinz Pavilion is renovated and turned into Fertitta Center — UH will provide a free shuttle service from UH to TSU due to limited arena parking at TSU.

The Rice Owls have a new head coach, Scott Pera, taking over for Mike Rhoades who departed for VCU after last season. And Rice will have many, many new faces on the squad after losing all of last season’s key players to graduation and transfer. Bishop Mency and Connor Cashaw will anchor the squad as the two returning players with the most experience.

There should not be any changes when it comes to Rice’s offensive style. Pera promises to keep pushing the ball quickly up the court, and he wants players taking the open shot when they see it, just as the Owls did under Rhoades. Both Mency and Cashaw say that Pera has been stressing defense more than Rhoades.

It is hard to earn enthusiasm from the Rice fanbase nowadays, especially going into another year of rebuilding. But there is some continuity — Pera was an assistant to Rhoades and there are a few returning players.Since Pera was one of James Harden's college coaches, it is hoped that Harden will come to campus for a few games (as he does with UH where Sampson was one of his Rockets coaches), so maybe that star factor can excite Rice fans.

Both UH and Rice are on the road the week of Thanksgiving playing in tournaments — UH in Virginia in a tourney originally scheduled to be played in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Rice in Las Vegas — but TSU is on the road for the rest of 2017. This has become a staple for the Tigers. Head coach Mike Davis schedules big names and difficult opponents on the road every season so as to help his team’s strength of schedule and because the opponents pay TSU lots of money to come to them — this money is then put back into the TSU athletic department budget.

TSU tips off its season at Gonzaga (last season’s runner-up to North Carolina for the NCAA title), then onto Washington State then Ohio State and Syracuse and Kansas and Clemson and Oakland and Toledo and Oregon and Baylor and Wyoming then TCU then BYU. Then it’s Christmas and into its conference schedule. TSU won’t have many wins at this point, but its strength of schedule will be high.

By building  strength in non-conference play, the hope is that TSU will be able to withstand the damage that comes from SWAC play, where NCAA observers feel that competition is weak. TSU should earn the automatic NCAA Tournament bid by winning the SWAC tournament, but perhaps TSU can get a 14 or 15 seed instead of being a sacrificial 16 seed. A 16 seed has never won a NCAA Tournament game, but 14 and 15 seeds have, and it is TSU’s goal to get a tournament win.

UH hosts McNeese State at TSU’s H&PE Arena on Friday night while Rice hosts Eastern Kentucky at Tudor Fieldhouse. TSU’s first home game will be on New Year's Day. Otherwise, the closest to home that TSU will get before that is the game in Waco against Baylor.

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