It's been 11 days since the Houston Cougars basketball season ended. A 94-65 ass-whipping handed to it by Louisville in the AAC Conference Tournament in Memphis. The loss left the Cougars at 17-16 for the season, three fewer victories than the previous season, and no post-season tournament in the offing.
Thus ended the fourth season of James Dickey's tenure as head coach. His record's a pedestrian 64-62 in that time, and his teams have yet to finish with a winning conference record in either Conference USA or AAC play. The team's suffered player defections and controversial staff moves. There's talent on the team, but too often the team seems unprepared, not ready for what it's going to face when the game starts.
The Cougars did defeat three ranked teams this season, the first time that's happened in an eternity. But with the triumphs that came from defeating UConn, Memphis, and SMU (and possibly knocking SMU out of the NCAA tourney with that loss) were the agonizingly embarrassing losses to Louisville (91-52), Memphis (82-59), UConn (80-43), Rutgers (93-70), and San Jose State (72-68). The Cougars played in a much tougher conference this season, but the out-of-conference schedule was rather weak.
Many fans were convinced that Dickey would be fired by now. More thought that by now he'd be extended a year so as to not be seen as a lame duck. And other rumors surfaced that a clause had been triggered in his contract several years ago that extended his contract two years, leaving him now with three years on his contract.
The rumors can be knocked down. For today at least. I've spoken with UH, and Dickey's contract has not been extended. Not for one year. Not for two years. As of now, I've been told by the school, he's still working under the terms of his original contract. It's very possible that UH will call a press conference within minutes of this story being posted, and it will announce Dickey's stepping down, or being fired, or getting a contract extension. But as of now, this moment, there's no change in his contractual status.
Where's that leave things with UH basketball? It leaves a team with talent that was able to soundly defeat three ranked teams this season. The school's approved the budget for a new practice facility on which work should start this May. But it also leaves a coach serving out the final year of his contract with a cloud hanging over his head. He's got to recruit without being able to tell kids his status for the future. He's got to continue to command the respect of the players on the team, and keep the focus on the games to be played, not with what happens to the coach. If UH is going to keep Dickey, then it fairness it needs to extend his contract for another season. But that only solves the immediate coaching issue. What's the team got to do to improve? To achieve a winning conference record? To get some positive attention, to draw fans?
There's the minor things which often become major things. Those cliche things which while cliches, are still truths. The team's got to play the complete game, every game. Too often in the past several years the team's look unprepared to start, or has gotten off to a slow start, or has taken time off late in the game. And after every game the coach says the same thing, that it's on him, that he didn't properly prepare the team, or the players say that they didn't execute the offense properly or had mental lapses.
But that's only a start. Something desperately needs to be done about the scheduling because the out-of-conference schedule UH has been playing is an insult to the fans, the players, and the school. Sure an easy schedule full of teams like Lehigh and Howard and Texas State and Alcorn State makes it possible to pile up wins (hopefully) before heading into conference play. But it doesn't excite the fan base, gives them no reason to come to the games, and wins against nobodies leading to a lousy strength of schedule do not guarantee postseason tournament play.
Strengthening the out-of-conference schedule is even more important because of the departure of Louisville to the ACC. Coming into the conference will be ECU, Tulsa, and Tulane, in effect turning the American into just another version of Conference USA. So the stronger the out-of-conference, the better the odds of making up for the strength of schedule hit, the better the schedule, the better odds of better attendance, of getting to a postseason tournament, or of course, the better the odds of a losing record.
And so UH heads into the off-season. There's no changes for the moment. No hitting of any reset buttons. And maybe that's not even needed. There are fans that might not be happy, but then again, UH did defeat UConn, Memphis, and SMU, so who knows what's in store next season.
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