In a little over two months the Houston Cougars men's basketball will begin the sixth season of the Tom Penders era. The Cougars went 21-12 last season and went into the postseason for the fourth time in five years (albeit none of those postseason forays have involved the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament).
At this time last season, Penders didn't know what to expect coming into the season. "I didn't know if we would be a .500 team, but we won 21," he said in an interview in his office last week. "This year, I feel like we've got a chance to be a lot better."
Last season's team was a young team with five new starters. But Penders promises that this year's team will be a good mix of veterans and youngsters: "We're a bigger, stronger team, and deeper team than we were last year."
"There's an awful lot of competition to play," he said about the team. "We have some really talented newcomers. Three guys that started just about every game, four actually -- Desmond Wade and Zamal Nixon, one was starting or the other. Then you've got Kelvin Lewis and Aubrey Coleman -- Aubrey averaged around 20 (19.4 ppg) and Kelvin around 18 (18.0 ppg) -- they're going to be pushed for minutes by some of our newcomers."
The Cougars open the season on November 17 when the team hosts Nicholls State. After that comes a stop in Reno against Nevada before heading to Anchorage for the Great Alaska Shootout at the end of November. The biggest names on the non-conference schedule are Oklahoma and Mississippi State.
"Mississippi State is in everybody's Top Ten. I don't know if Oklahoma's in anybody's Top Ten right now, but it's a great name, and a great program, and it's an opportunity to play them because they won't play us home-and-home."
Penders says that non-conference scheduling is difficult for the Cougars because the big-name teams don't want to play them. "Those tournaments [Great Alaska Shootout] are often the only opportunities we have to play those types of teams [Oklahoma]," he says. "We're in that area. We're considered a dangerous team. A lot of these schools back off of those type of games. We beat LSU three years in a row so they dropped us. We beat Kentucky...they dropped us. Arizona, we beat them once then lost in overtime, they dropped us. So we have issues with scheduling. Scheduling is almost as difficult as recruiting these days."
The key to the Cougars season -- the key to making it to the NCAA Tournament -- will, as always, be their play inside of Conference USA. For the past several years the king of the conference has been the Memphis Tigers. But John Calipari has moved on -- with the NCAA sanction police right behind -- to coach Kentucky, and many of the players who led the team in years past have moved on.
That said, Penders doesn't discount the challenge he and the rest of the conference will face from Memphis this season. "They lost four starters from last year's team," he said. "But they have some veteran players back that maybe played secondary roles. And they got a kid early out of junior college...a six-nine player out of Miami-Dade Junior College in Florida. I still expect them to be a quality team, but they're not going to have the Derrick Rose guy on the ball club...or the star quality guy. But they're a very good basketball team. There's no question."
Penders feels the team to beat however will be a Tulsa Hurricane squad that returns basically every player from a squad that went 25-11 last season: "And the [C-USA] tournament is in Tulsa. So a lot of people feel that they're the favorite."
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And he sees Memphis, Tulsa, the Cougars, and the UTEP Miners as being the top four squads in the conference this season though there are a couple of squads, like Rice and SMU that might possibly surprise people.
Hopefully, for all involved, none of those teams will surprise so much as to keep the Cougars from qualifying for the NCAA Tournament come March. Because the ultimate success of a college basketball program isn't defined by the regular season record, or success in the NIT or the CBI.
It's defined by how successful a team is in when part of March Madness. Despite everything, March Madness is something the Cougar men's basketball team has failed to experience in nearly 20 years.
That quest to experience March Madness begins in about two months. Let's hope the quest doesn't end until the NCAA title game in April.