Nobody expected the Houston Cougars to win 22 games this year. Or to earn the second seed in the conference tournament. The Cougars just weren’t supposed to be good enough this season. The Cougars were still young, still lacking talent. The team didn’t have the length to compete with the big kids of the American Athletic Conference. There was no way in hell that this team would be in the discussion for an NCAA Tournament bid.
That the Cougars have surprised many this season doesn’t mean that the naysayers were wrong. The Cougars are still young. The team does lack length and size. There is a lack of talent among the big guys. But head coach Kelvin Sampson preached playing together as a team, playing to strengths, setting tempo, playing defense.
And Sampson did one thing more. He preached accountability. To oneself, to one’s coaches, to one’s teammates. Playing time was earned not just by what happened on the court during a game, but also by what happened in practice, and what happened in classes. Just having talent was no longer enough to get one on the court during a game. Those days were gone.
The Cougars were 13-4 heading into SMU for a mid-January game. The team was on a two-game losing streak, yet still feeling good enough to think an upset of the then-undefeated Mustangs was a strong possibility, especially since the Cougars possessed the conference’s leading scorer in Rob Gray Jr. Only Sampson benched Gray for a violation of team rules, and the Cougars lost 77-73.
It’s strange to think of a loss as a turning point in a season. But team observers point to that SMU loss as the game that pivoted the season. It was that game that told the players that rules were rules. That one had to be accountable for actions. That no one player was more important than the team.
“I think that was a wake-up call for some other guys that believed they were owed playing time and a spot in the rotation,” UH broadcaster Matt Thomas said. “Kelvin said, ‘The hell with that.’”
While not addressing the SMU situation, senior guard LeRon Barnes stated that Sampson’s accountability policy was a key to his coming back this season. And Sampson’s benching Gray for the then most important game of the season must have reverberated favorably to players who did work, did follow the rules.
“That’s a big reason why I came back,” Barnes told the Press. “[That last year under coach James Dickey] we had people — the coaches, went off pure talent. You could come to practice an hour late, you could get in trouble in practice, and they’d still start them. You’re not doing that with Coach Sampson. You’re going off the way you work. You have to earn your spot.”
So the Cougars earned their way to a 22-8 record (12-6 in conference play). The conference’s leading scorer is a Cougar, Rob Gray Jr. who finished the season with a 16.3 points per game average. But the team still has problems with big, athletic guys, and with teams that slow up the game and force UH to play at a slow tempo. Yet the Cougars have defeated every team in the AAC this season, and the team’s currently on a three-game winning streak.
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“This team doesn’t have a lot of pure shooters, but they’re streaky,” Thomas said. “Streaky teams can win conference tournaments because all you have got to be good for is three days. So I just think that if they attack the glass — teams are zoning them to death — don’t be afraid of the zone. And just get a mojo of hitting that first or second jumper. It doesn’t have to be a tough corner three. It doesn’t have to be when the shot clock expires. Just do something to hit that open guy and find the hot guy. This team is built for a tournament run.”
If the Cougars go on a deep conference tournament run, then maybe the Cougars will make the NCAA Tourney. But if that doesn’t happen, the odds are good of Houston getting an invite to the NIT or one of the other postseason tournaments.
“We’re building our brand,” Kelvin Sampson told the Press. “You can tell where this is headed. We made a big jump this year. And who knows? I don't know where this season is going to end.”
The NCAA Tourney? The NIT? Who saw this coming before the season? What better way can there be to build a brand than taking a young team, supposedly lacking in talent and depth, into the postseason? And if there are a few lessons about accountability and effort thrown into the mix, then that’s got to speak lots about that emerging brand. So tune into the action starting on Friday to find out just what's next for UH this season.