Commentary: Cougars stumble to the finish, but the future is bright
After a promising start to the year, the Cougars lost two straight games to officially end their season.
Houston had a chance to earn its first NCAA tournament bid since 2010, but fell short when it was upset by Tulane University in the second round of the American Athletic Conference Championship.
Then the Cougars were invited to the National Invitation Tournament, a feat they have not accomplished in 10 years, but UH lost in the first round to Georgia Institute of Technology.
Heading into the championship, Houston was considered one of the hottest teams in the AAC after big wins against Cincinnati and Southern Methodist University.
If the Cougars could have carried that momentum and made some noise in the championship, they would have undoubtedly been part of March Madness, but basketball is not about what-ifs.
Despite their disappointing and abrupt end to the season, the Cougars made vast improvements in just the second year under head coach Kelvin Sampson. Now expectations will remain high for the Cougars.
UH won nine more games overall than they did last season and won eight more conference games than last year. Last season, the Cougars finished second-to-last in the AAC but jumped to third in the conference this season.
UH hit milestones all season, as this was the first time that Houston beat Cincinnati since the Bearcats joined the AAC in 2013. Houston defeated SMU and the University of Memphis for the first time since the 2013-2014 season. The Cougars also won at least one game against every team in the AAC.
The Cougars made a statement on national television when they beat the Louisiana State University Tigers in overtime, holding freshman standout Ben Simmons to just 13 points.
Houston will look to improve on its new-found success as it brings back four of the five highest scoring players for next season.
Sophomore guard Rob Gray Jr. finished first in scoring for the Cougars, while junior forward Damyean Dotson, redshirt junior guard Ronnie Johnson and freshman guard Galen Robinson Jr. finished third through fifth. Dotson also led the Cougars in rebounds per game with 6.8.
UH will lose four seniors this year, although only two of them were crucial to the Cougars’ game plan.
The biggest departure is senior forward Devonta Pollard, who averaged 14 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
The other key loss for UH is redshirt senior guard LeRon Barnes. Barnes appeared in 29 of 32 games and averaged 6.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
Although the losses of Barnes and Pollard will be huge for UH, Sampson will bring in another talented crop of recruits.
Sampson was responsible for bringing in Dotson and Gray to the Cougars from other schools, and he also recruited Robinson from Westbury Christian High School.
For next season, Sampson has already gotten commitments from a high school senior and a junior college transfer.
Armoni Brooks, who is the No. 11 ranked player in Texas according to Texas Hoops, is coming to Houston as a 6-foot-4-inch guard from McNeil High School in Round Rock. Brooks has tremendous upside as a floor-spacing guard.
Valentine Sangoyomi is a transfer student for next season and will have two years of eligibility left. Sangoyomi is coming from Northern Oklahoma College, where he averaged 6.2 points and 7 rebounds per game as a sophomore for the Mavericks. Sangoyomi, a 6-foot-10-inch center, will bring some much-needed size to the Cougars. He has the ability to battle for rebounds in the post and score on the block.
Although UH’s tournament hopes were deflated after a non-showing in the AAC Championship, the Cougars will take the loss in stride. Sampson is building a formidable program here at UH, and the progress is already apparent.