For the Houston Cougars this basketball season, it’s all about evolution. The team fans are seeing now won’t necessarily be the same team the fans see in January, and if all goes according to plan, it won’t be the same team the fans see come the end of the season.
The Cougars are 5-1 on the young season as the team heads into Sunday’s home matchup with the LSU Tigers and young phenom 6-10 Ben Simmons (averaging 19.9 points per game, 14.9 rebounds per game, and 6.0 assists per game) . And while the Cougars will be tasked with attempting to find someway to limit the damage of Simmons, the team’s got something more important it needs to continue to do. The guys have to learn how to play with each other.
"Right now we’re a team that’s evolving,” head coach Kelvin Sampson said last week after the team’s 93-78 win over Murray State. “We’re in the process of trying to get better. We’re five games into a 31-game — we’re guaranteed 31 games and we’re five games into it [now six games]. Every time these guys go out on the court — we have so many new guys….It’s going to take awhile for everybody to learn to play together. But until they learn to play for each other, they’ll never play together. And that’s the thing that I’m starting to see in practice and in games, they’re starting to play for each other.”
There is a lot of talent on this team, but the talent is young. Point guard Galen Robinson, Jr. is a freshman who led Westbury Christian last season. Ronnie Johnson is a junior guard who was redshirted last season and spent the two seasons before that with Purdue. Shooting guard Rob Gray, Jr. was in junior college last season. Multiple other players were redshirted last season or were playing in junior college. And even though Devonta Pollard and LeRon Barnes are returning players, they too have to take time to learn their teammates.
But while the players are still feeling out each other, the improvement from last year’s team is obvious. The ball movement is crisp. Guys don’t stand around on offense, and the defensive effort is more intense.
Sampson likes lots of what he’s seen over the first six games. The ball movement and shot selections are two of the things that he’s like. One of the biggest improvement has been the inside-out game that Sampson likes — the ball going deep to a big guy who passes back out to one of the shooters when the defense collapses. And he notes that this good inside-out ball movement is all part of the learning process, of learning each other, of starting to play for each other, and that it should get better the more the guys understand what he wants and what they’re capable of when playing as a team.
“You mentioned the ball movement, our inside-outside game and getting the ball reversed,” he said. “Good offensive teams play on the third side. The first side you come down on. The second side is ball reversal, and then the third side is weak-to-strong, back-to-strong. We’re getting better at that, but we need to keep working on it. We’re getting to the point now where we understand what that means, and that’s where we get a lot of our good shots.”
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One aspect the team needs to work on is ball-handling. There’s been a trend towards sloppiness the faster the pace gets — rather it’s bad shot selection, poor passing, or just have the ball stolen. The Cougars are improving, and the team is more talented than last year, but it’s still not good enough that it can survive continued turnovers because of sloppy play.
“We’re getting better,” Samspon stressed. “We weren’t this good a month ago. But I think a month from now we’re going to be a lot better than we were tonight. There are so many areas that we’re going to get better at. We have a good team, but it’s not as good as it’s going to be in a month, or maybe two months. We have to continue to identify areas of concern and keep working.”
The Cougars have five more games before conference play begins at the end of December. This is the point where fans will really get the chance to see just how much better the team is from last year, and just how much the guys have evolved this season. The American Athletic Conference is a tough basketball conference, and the Cougars will have to find ways to match up with teams like Cincinnati, UConn, SMU, and Memphis. And for the sake of the fans, hopefully, by the time conference play starts, the team will have evolved from cave man stage to at least the Renaissance.
For the curious, Sunday’s UH home game against LSU is scheduled for a 4:30 tip, which gives fans times to get out to Hofheinz Pavilion to take in the game then get home in time to watch the Texans. And if fans aren’t up for the drive, the game will be broadcast on ESPN2.