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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Men's Basketball

Three ways men’s basketball is poised for success in 2017


Senior guard Wes VanBeck has found few shots that he didn’t like. Last season, the former walk-on led the team in three-point percentage (48 percent) and free throw percentage (87 percent). | File photo/The Cougar

It’s been 33 years since the Cougar men’s basketball team has sniffed, well, any reminiscence of sustained success.

Fans once flocked to Hofheinz Pavilion to catch a glimpse of the legendary teams that were eventually dubbed “Phi Slama Jama” by Houston Press in 1982. Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Michael Young highlighted the star-studded roster that revolutionized college basketball with an urban style of up-tempo play, which captivated audiences across the nation with pristine fast breaks and high-flying finishes.

Now a distant memory, the state of Cougars basketball in 2017 is comparatively unrecognizable.

Since four consecutive NCAA Tournament berths between 1980 and 1984, three straight Final Four appearance from 1982 to 1984 and back-to-back heartbreaks in the National Final in both 1983 and 1984, there’s been virtually no reason to be excited about UH basketball.

The Cougars have cracked the AP’s top 25 rankings twice for a total of two weeks since the historic run more than three decades ago and have appeared in the NCAA Tournament just four times — all ending in first round exits.

Even still, the 2017 Cougars have a team that could make noise in the competitive American Athletic Conference this season.

With tipoff just over a week away, here’s why there should be optimism for the upcoming basketball season.

Upward trajectory

Houston’s last two seasons have not been bad, depending on how you measure the success of season.

Hear me out.

Sure, the Cougars were embarrassed by Tulane in the first round of the AAC Tournament in 2016 and then had a valiant effort fall short against UConn after earning a first round bye in the tourney last March.

Although the outcomes were obviously not what Houston wanted, the Cougars have posted 11 and 10 losses over the last two seasons, respectively, which is the lowest two-year loss total since 1991 and 1992. In this time, Houston is 0-4 in postseason play between the AAC Tournament and National Invitation Tournament, but the team’s 44-21 record in regular-season play is a crucial first step in returning to basketball dominance.

The University is putting its faith and finances into the program, in part through the state-of-the-art Guy V. Lewis Development Center that will soon be attached to the new home of Cougars’ basketball in 2018: the Fertitta Center.

If all goes according to plan, the unveiling of the new arena will be accompanied by a team carrying high expectations and poised for long-term success. To make this goal a reality, the Cougars must begin to build momentum when the season tips off in November.

Balanced roster built for now and later

Redshirt senior guard Rob Gray Jr. enters his third season wearing red and white and has proven himself to be the most prolific scorer in the AAC. Since transferring from Howard Junior College in 2015, Gray led the conference in scoring with 16 points per game in 2015 followed by a 16-point average last year.

His accolades earned him a spot on the AAC Preseason First Team heading into this season.

Alongside Gray is the likes of senior sharpshooter Wes VanBeck who has converted 41 percent of his shots from beyond the arc in his UH career. Where VanBeck lacks in experience with just five starts, he excels in development as the senior played his first two seasons as a walk-on until earning a coveted scholarship.

VanBeck rose to the occasion in 2016 and became the team’s top shooter both from the three-point line (48 percent) and free throw line (87 percent).

Overall, the pair of guards torched opponents for a combined 47 percent from the field, 42 percent from beyond the arc and 83 percent from the charity stripe.

The duo of Gray and VanBeck gives the Cougars a tandem at the guard positions that will be rivaled by few teams, if any, within the conference.

First-year Cougars add talent

Head coach Kelvin Sampson is revered in the basketball community, so it’s no surprise that Houston is increasingly becoming a destination for premier talent in the high school ranks as well as transfer players from around the NCAA.

Entering his fourth season, Sampson now has a full roster of players he recruited specifically to his system. Among freshman set to make team debuts in 2017 is Houston-area standout Fabian White.

White was ranked as the No. 6 player in the state of Texas and as the No. 25 power forward among all high schoolers. The Atascocita High School graduate boasts a 6-foot-7-inch, 210-pound frame that will help the 18-year-old step in and make an immediate difference.

Continuing the theme of bulking up the roster over the offseason, the Cougars added 6-foot-7-inch, 240-pound forward Nura Zanna as a graduate transfer from LIU-Brooklyn. A three-time letter winner with the Blackhawks, Zanna pestered teams in the paint last season en route to averaging 8.7 points per game on 63 percent shooting in addition to coming down with nearly seven rebounds per contest.

Only time will tell, but it appears that the team’s roster is built for both immediate success with the potential for long-term, sustained growth.

Houston will play its final tune-up in an exhibition against Angelo State on Sunday before opening the 2017 season with a home contest against McNeese State on Nov. 10.

Both games are set to be played at H&PE Arena at Texas Southern — the temporary home of UH basketball until Fertitta Center construction is completed next year.

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