The University of Houston basketball team was supposed to win Saturday night. That’s the thing about early-season out-of-conference basketball games. Lots of those games are sure winners for the home team.
How the Cougars won Saturday night's game, however, stands out. They defeated Florida A&M by 45 points, 97-52, to go to 2-0 on the season. The story’s in how head coach Kelvin Sampson kept getting on his team about defensive lapses late into the game. And how he was able to play every healthy player on his bench as he searches for the combinations that will power Houston once the team gets into the conference schedule.
But more importantly, it’s this: the Cougars never won games my this margin last year. Even playing the early-season out-of-conference games last year the Cougars struggled just to win, much less win by a big margin. And while it’s difficult to know just what the Cougars will do once the season gets going and January becomes February, this much, this early, is obvious. The Houston Cougars are a much better basketball team than it was last season.
It’s a young team that saw freshman Galen Robinson, Jr. and sophomore Rob Gray, Jr. get large chunks of playing time. And it’s a team with lots of guys who haven’t played with each other before this season. There’s some size in Kyle Meyer and Xavier Dupree and Bertrand Nkali. And there’s this, the team ran the ball up and down the court.
“We approached these games the right way,” Sampson said. “We’re playing good. Because we beat a team by 50, there’s a tendency to demean the game or demean the team we beat. But there are teams in these team’s leagues that are going on the road and beating other teams. Arkansas Pine-Bluff the other night led Oklahoma State at halftime. We prepare our kids the same way no matter who we play, and we play for 40 minutes. We play hard. We play the right way. I could see a lot of improvement defensively from the Prairie View game to this game.”
So what happens this season? What becomes of the Cougars? Kelvin Sampson’s not sure. He’s still figuring out his lineups, figuring out starters and the bench guys and the various player combos. The players are still learning Sampson, and all involved are still learning just how tightly the referees are going to call games — the new edict is for more offensive flow and to prevent contact, and multiple Cougars were called for fouls that wouldn’t have been fouls in years past.
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“A lot of it also is due to the new rules,” Sampson said. “[The referees] calling everything. Half the fouls that were called against us tonight would not have been called last year. These referees go to clinics, seminars; they get evaluated, they get coached and taught. The powers that be said, ‘We want a free-flowing, cleaner, offensive game. We’re not going to allow any contact whatsoever.’ We put that team on the free-throw line 30 times; that’s ridiculous. That’s something we’re going to have to adjust to.”
The Cougars passed out 21 assists, turned the ball over just nine times and scored 35 points off of Florida A&M turnovers. Those numbers will be difficult to maintain as the season progresses, as the schedule hardens and UH moves into conference play. But for the team to have any kind of success this year, that turnover/assist ratio will be key, and Houston will need to score off turnovers.
“We are not there yet; no team is there yet,” Sampson said after the 45-point win. “We are two games into a 31-game season. When we get to our tenth, 11th or 12th games, we should be ready to go. We have got to do a better job at getting clean defensive rebounds and getting the ball out to our point guards, because when we get into transition, that is when we are at our best; we are a good running team. We are getting a lot of stops, but we have to learn to adjust to this new refereeing philosophy of calling all the contact. It is not the referees’ fault, because all they are doing is enforcing all the rules. Play defense with your feet, not your hands.”
The Cougars don’t play again until Saturday, when the team hosts the University of Louisiana-Monroe at 7 p.m. That’s time for the guys to enjoy some turkey on Thanksgiving in between workouts and practices and Sampson and his staff trying to get his guys to understand the new defensive rules. And who knows, maybe some of the newly found football fans will decide to come over to Hofheinz, because it’s got to be depressing playing in a nearly empty arena every night.