The Houston Cougars defeated Eastern Illinois 81-65 on Saturday. The win improved the team’s recored to 8-1. That’s a nice record, and one vastly better than any record seen by a UH basketball team in years. But with only three games left before the conference schedule starts up, there’s one big question that has yet to really be addressed: are the Cougars a good basketball team?
The team is improved from years past. It’s younger and more talented than more recent teams. There’s more height, more athleticism, and more depth. But it’s a team that’s played just one game out of state before tonight (the Cougars are in Las Vegas for a tournament tonight), and it’s a team that’s played a ridiculously soft out-of-conference schedule. So because of that, it’s just really hard to determine right now just how good the Cougars are going to be.
But after Saturday’s win, there are a few things that can be established. The Cougars have multiple options on offense. Playing without the team’s best scorer, Rob Gray, Jr. who has an ankle injury, the Cougars still put up 81 points. The offense that head coach Kelvin Sampson has implemented is fun to watch. His guys push the ball up the court, yet it’s not a quick-shot offense. He stresses passing and ball movement, and what’s really enjoyable to watch is the movement of the guys without the ball.
It’s an unselfish team with guys who will pass up good shots so that teammates with better shots get those shots. It’s also an offense where players willingly feed teammates who are hot. For instance, on Saturday, guard Damyean Dotson could not miss from three-point range in the first half, and he was hit with pass after pass that came from the flow of the offense. In the second half, when Dotson cooled off, Ronnie Johnson became the team’s prime option. But passes were never forced to either player. There was no one-on-one play. It was teammates passing to open shooters in the flow of play.
“Our best offensive player didn’t play today, and we scored 81 points,” Sampson said. “We are a good offensive team. I really liked the way we moved the ball. The ball moves on this team. We have guys that can get to the free-throw line. We have guys that can get fouled. Ronnie (Johnson) went to the line eight times, (Danrad) “Chicken” (Knowles) four, and Galen (Robinson, Jr.) five.
“Devonta (Pollard) was just a ball mover today,” Sampson continued. “He probably could have scored four or five more baskets, but he elected to move the ball. Every basket (Damyean) Dotson got in the first half, all his threes, were off of an assist. Wes (Van Beck) came in and made some plays off assists, and then he drove it because of our spacing.”
Yet even with this win, even with the record, Sampson knows that his team’s not perfect, that there are things to fix. Eastern Illinois was able to stick around in this game far longer than it should have, even leading the game late in the first half. This resulted mostly from defensive breakdowns. Sampson says the team has to work on its defensive cohesion and its defensive consistency, saying there are too many times where one guy doesn’t work with the other four, causing things to breakdown, and those defensive lapses could be what keeps the team from being a good team.
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“Defense,” Sampson said Saturday. “That is the only thing we are going to stay on top of them about. That can make us a pretty good team. We have a chance to be a pretty good team if we can shore up our defensive breakdowns.”
Sampson was able to get some extended playing time for guard L.J. Rose on Saturday which was important seeing as how Rose is just now coming back from breaking his third broken foot in a year. But unlike last season, where Rose was one of the team’s best player and desperately needed on the court, the depth and talent of this team, especially at the guard position, means that Sampson can take his time with Rose.
“It speaks to the gluttony of guards that we have,” Sampson said. “I am not going to try to play all these guards. I am going to play the best guards. My job is not to keep these guys happy. My job is to put the University of Houston in the best position to be successful, and I know how to do that. That is why practice is important. Guys that don’t practice well, guys that don’t come with it don’t look at me, because it was you who made the decision. You made the choice, not me. I choose the ones that are playing well.”
That’s the current state of the Cougars. It’s a young team with a decent record that has not yet proven it’s a good team. It’s an exciting team to watch, and it’s a talented team. It’s got more depth than it’s had in years. But no one yet knows just how good the team is, or how good it can be. The promise is there, and if the team gets the whole defense thing figured out, then it just might be able to fulfill that promise.