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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Men's Basketball

Basketball set to start season against McNeese State


Junior guard Corey Davis Jr. drives to the basket in the Cougars’ 92-80 exhibition win over Angelo State. The Cougars are set to start their season at 7 p.m. Friday against McNeese State in Texas Southern’s H&PE Arena. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

The men’s basketball regular season tips off Friday as they take on the McNeese State Cowboys.

The Cougars have lofty expectations this season. While always believing they can win the American Athletic Conference, they are also looking to end their NCAA tournament drought. The 2009-2010 season was the last time the team qualified.

“We’re going to go as far as our senior class takes us,” said head coach Kelvin Sampson in an interview with UH Athletics. “For us to have the kind of year we have a chance to have, it’s going to come down to the leadership from our senior class.”

Sampson said as much because the roster this year is full of fresh faces. With four true freshmen and six transfer students, the Cougars will need some time getting accustomed to playing with each other. This team has a chance to excel, but it’s still a work in progress, Sampson said.

The Cougars have three returning seniors who Sampson believes will be the key to this season’s success. One of those key players is redshirt senior shooting guard Rob Gray Jr.

Gray had a career year last season, leading the conference in scoring with 20.6 points per game and receiving honors on the All-American Athletic Conference First Team.

With Gray’s savviness and quickness, he has a knack for getting to the rim. Last season, he led the Cougars with 134 free-throw attempts and had the second most 3-pointers, shooting 38 percent from deep.

With shooting guard Damyean Dotson having graduated and moved on to the NBA, Gray has to continue to be a leader for his teammates both in and out of the game.

“(I’m) just trying to put others first and just pay attention to what others need more than myself,” Gray said. “Just try to be my best to be an extension of Coach Sampson and just teach and learn as well as I’m teaching.”

The Cougars’ opponent, McNeese State, is coming off a disappointing 7-22 season. This year, they have a relatively experienced team composed of mainly sophomores and juniors but have only two seniors left on the roster.

One of those seniors is Stephen Ugochukwu, a 6-foot-7 power forward who can stretch the floor with his shooting touch and play inside with his 220-pound frame. Ugochukwu was close to averaging a double-double last season with 10.9 points per game and 8 rebounds per game. He was one of only three Cowboys to average double digits in scoring last year.

Being one of the only two seniors on the team, he will lead the younger players and take on an even bigger role this season.

The Cougars need to win the rebounding battle. Last season, McNeese State’s opponents averaged 41.4 rebounds per game, while the Cowboys only secured 33.7. The Cougars should come into this game dominating the boards on defense as well as offense, producing second-chance shot opportunities.

Additionally, Houston will look to play inside-out in the half-court offense, as the team is equipped with many players comfortable operating in the post. This should complement the outside shooting they have in their guards, namely Gray, Wes VanBeck and Armoni Brooks.

The game against McNeese State will start at 7 p.m. Friday at Texas Southern’s H&PE Arena.

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