Wichita State has been one of the best mid-major basketball programs for many years. But tired of not being treated as a major player in college basketball, the school made the leap during the off-season, joining the American Athletic Conference, perhaps the best of the mid-major conferences.
The Houston Cougars were once one of the great powers of college basketball. But that was long ago and the program has floated in the ether for years, bouncing from conference to conference as it has attempted to regain relevancy in college basketball. Whereas Wichita State is a fixture in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the Cougars, once a staple, have made just one appearance since 1989.
The Cougars are off to a nice start this basketball season. The team sprinted off to a 12-2 beginning and embarrassed lots of the competing teams in its way. But just how good were the Cougars? Besides a win over a good Arkansas basketball team, the Cougars have not really faced tough competition — its strength of schedule was pegged at just 195, and just three of the 14 games had been played against teams ranked in the top 100 by strength of schedule.
The Cougars and Wichita State faced off in Wichita on Thursday night. The Shockers came to the game with a 11-2 record, ranked ninth in the country, and with a strength of schedule rated as 24. And as one might expect, the Cougars didn’t come out too well, losing 81-63 to Wichita State in a game that was way more lopsided than indicated by the final score (UH trailed by as many 30 in the second half).
The score was tied twice, early in the game. Other than that, Houston never led in the game. The Cougars hit 41-percent of their shots (23-56) and made just four of 15 three point attempts. UH also turned the ball over 15 times (the Shockers scored 23 points off of those turnovers). Houston’s best player, Rob Gray, led the Cougars with 13 points on 6-of-14 shooting.
It’s hard to win games when the shots do not fall. It’s even harder to win games when there is nothing but turnover after turnover. So in many ways, this was just not a game the Cougars were in position to win.
The Cougars will be okay this season. It will be another 20-win season. There’ll be more talk of the team being on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament, and then it will likely all come down to the conference tournament where the Cougars will have to go on a run and go deep. That’s been the situation with the team for the past several seasons, and the results have always been the same, a trip to the NIT.
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Kelvin Sampson has done a good job since taking over the Cougars. The team plays an exciting brand of basketball, and that brand involves a fast pace, fundamentals, ball movement, and defense. Rob Gray is a blast to watch. Sampson is right when he asks for Houstonians to come out and watch his team play.
But at some point UH has to start doing something to entice those fans. Houston fans are fickle — witness that drop off in football attendance this past season. Fans will show up for Arkansas because Arkansas is a name. But a fickle fanbase is not going to show up for Incarnate Word or McNeese State or New Orleans or Fairfield or Prairie View.
Upping the schedule, playing bigger names, would increase fan interest in the Cougars — the standard answer is that big names schools do not want to come to Houston to play (and yet Tom Penders was still able to get Kentucky and Arizona to come to Houston). To which the response should be something like what TSU does every season. Go on the road and play big names. It aids the strength of schedule which comes in handy when it comes to getting into the NCAA Tournament, it ups fan interest, and the tougher out-of-conference schedule will make the team better as the players will be used to strong competition when conference play starts and it is time to face conference powers like Cincinnati, SMU, and Wichita State.
The Cougars return to action next Thursday night when the team hosts 10-5 Tulsa at TSU’s H&PE Arena. And on January 20, the Cougars and Wichita State will meet again.