The Houston Cougars’ chances of making the NCAA Tournament took a hit Saturday night. The 18-8 Cougars lost to No. 19 SMU (24-4) by a score of 76-66. The Cougars led for large portions of the game, including nearly the entirety of the first half, but SMU was just too good, too talented, for UH to hold off.
The Cougars shut SMU down in the first half, the defense allowing the Mustangs to make just 11 of 29 shots and just one of nine three pointers. But the Cougars were unable to pull away from SMU, and finally, at about the halfway point of the second half, SMU took the lead for good and never looked back.
Head coach Kelvin Sampson attributed part of Houston’s problems to SMU’s just being a really good basketball team. He also noted the Cougars have essentially two players who can be counted on to score points every night, and that when one of those two, guard Rob Gray, went to the bench in the second half with foul problems, nobody else on the team was able to pick up the slack.
“A big part of that game is when Rob Gray picked up his fourth foul with 12:40 to go, and obviously he was cooking,” Sampson said. “We do not have that type of team. They have other weapons. We have Damyean Dotson and Rob Gray. We cannot play without them for an extended stretch.”
Gray finished the game with 23 points and Dotson contributed 19, but there was almost zero contribution from the team’s big guys down low. Forward Devin Davis, who Sampson thought early in the season would be that third scorer to go with Gray and Dotson, is still recovering from a foot injury that has forced him to miss several weeks of the season. Sampson sees him as a 13-point, seven-rebound guy when he’s healthy and in playing shape, and Sampson says he’s not at that point yet. Thus someone else needed to step up for the team, but it didn’t happen.
The team was also harmed by what Sampson refers to as empty possessions — those that result in missed shots, missed free throws or a turnover after controlling the ball for the majority of the shot clock. A lot of these he attributed to SMU’s defense, but he noted that the team missed many free throws, and he also felt his team got passive when playing against SMU’s zone. Sampson also noted that SMU had many of what looked to be empty possessions become good possessions thanks to free throws.
“We had a lot of empty possessions where we had good possessions,” he said. “We had great possessions, but if you miss a free throw, it’s an empty possession. [SMU] kept being put on the free throw line. We had a lot of possessions where I felt like we guarded them really well, and the next thing you know, they get two points from the free throw line.”
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The Cougars are seen as a bubble team by most NCAA Tournament analysts. The team has a decent record and a decent RPI (built on the basis of the conference schedule). But what it lacks are any signature wins. There are no wins this season against ranked teams (Rhode Island has fallen out of the top 25 since the loss to UH in December). And arguably the team’s best conference win is against UConn, a team with a 14-12 record that will be NCAA tourney-bound only if it can find some way to win the American Conference Tournament next month.
So a win over SMU would have given UH a signature win that it so sorely lacks, which could help it in the eyes of those picking the NCAA Tournament teams. But the loss hurt even more because this closing stretch of the season for UH is perhaps its toughest stretch since from here the Cougars still face UConn, a 18-9 Memphis team that Houston lost to earlier, then No. 18 Cincinnati, who Houston also lost to, then finishing with East Carolina. So the chances for the signature wins are still on the table, but the momentum the team would have gotten from a win on Saturday is gone.
“We are still stewing over this one a bit, but we still got great opportunities in front of us,” Sampson said. “We were 13-7 at one point [this season], and now we were 18-7...Tonight, every time we moved forward, we moved backwards. There was just not a lot of consistency in what we were doing down there defensively.”
The Cougars’ search for signature wins and consistency continues Wednesday at 8 p.m. when the team hosts UConn in what may likely be the next-to-last game ever to be played at Hofheinz Pavilion.