Roundtable: Best athletes, highlights from 2017-18 season
The 2017-18 athletic year was one of the most influential in recent memory. Teams reached heights that had not been experienced in decades, records were broken and awards were handed out. Something worthwhile happened for almost every team.
The Cougar sports staff decided to answer a few questions as they look back on the year.
Which athlete had the best season?
Trenton Whiting: Redshirt senior guard Rob Gray Jr. He led the basketball team to its best season in many years and scored the game-winner against San Diego State in the NCAA Tournament. Gray wasn’t able to get the team to the tournament’s second weekend, but he was able to gain some national recognition for the time he was there. When former Houston Rockets guard Kenny “The Jet” Smith had a man bun Photoshopped on his head, it verified Gray’s rising popularity. Though he will no longer be playing college basketball, his impact for UH will be remembered because of this season.
Jackson Gatlin: Sophomore defensive tackle Ed Oliver had probably the most outstanding individual season of any Cougar in the past decade. The man is a national media magnet, having received or been considered for more than 30 individual accolades in 2017 alone. The most notable was the Outland Trophy, which is given to the best college football interior lineman. Oliver, while playing through injury for four of his 12 games, still recorded an average of 6.1 tackles per game, which ranked third nationally among defensive linemen.
Christopher McGehee: There are several great options for this question, but the clear answer is someone whose season has not yet concluded: junior starting pitcher Savannah Heebner. She has shouldered the load for the softball team’s pitching rotation. Her 22 starts are one game less than the team’s two other pitchers combined. Heebner’s earned run average of 1.01 is top 20 in the NCAA this year. An athlete who has improved every year, Heebner has softball on a path to a conference title run.
Which team had the most influential year?
Whiting: The women’s basketball team. They picked up 20 wins and made postseason play for the first time since 2011. The team benefited from the rise of star guards Angela and Jasmyne Harris. Their contribution made the team a formidable challenge to its out-of-conference opponents. The team went on a losing streak at the end of the season and lost in the first round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. But a direct parallel could be made to the progression of the men’s team. Last year, the men lost in the first round of their NIT. We’ll see if the women bounce back the same way.
Gatlin: The men’s track & field team has had one of its best seasons in recent history, and it all started with the 4x100m relay national title they secured last June. That relay set the tone for this season and was the first national championship obtained by a UH sports team since 2013. So far, the Cougars have broken school records, earned many individual and team accolades and have posted world-leading relay times, proving they are a top-tier program in the nation.
McGehee: The men’s basketball team. With the nationwide popularity of the NCAA March Madness tournament, it is imperative for every school to make the postseason. The men’s basketball team not only made the tournament, but they advanced to the second round, where a buzzer-beater was the only thing keeping them from moving on to the Sweet Sixteen. As a result, the team finished the season ranked in the top 25 for the first time since the 1983-84 season. UH received media exposure that had not been achieved since the football team triumphed in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl and finished the season 13-1.
What’s your bold prediction for the 2018-19 year?
Whiting: The women’s basketball team will mirror the men’s exactly. Next season, they will be in the top three of the conference and make the NCAA Tournament. They might not be ranked like the men’s team was in 2018, but they’ll make the tournament because of the strength of the Harrises. Their performance will push them to a win in the Big Dance, but they’ll fall in the second game. Luckily for the Cougars, they’ll have the Harrises for another full season afterwards.
Gatlin: With good coaching and new openings in the rotation for young, hungry athletes, the Cougars should at least make it to the Elite Eight, possibly even the Final Four next season. After a tragic end to a fairytale season, the men’s basketball team will be losing several key seniors as graduation approaches, but the Cougars have dealt with change and adversity before. Five seniors graduated just before the start of this past season, leaving behind only four of the nine players that made up the 2016-2017 rotation. That change allowed players like Rob Gray Jr. and Devin Davis to step up and help the team reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
McGehee: Junior defensive tackle Ed Oliver will become the first overall pick in the NFL draft, becoming the first defensive tackle to be taken first overall since Ohio State’s Dan Wilkinson in 1994, and he will also finish in the top five in Heisman Trophy voting. In 1972 and 1975, tight end Riley Odoms and defensive end Mack Mitchell were each selected with the 5th overall pick in the NFL draft– tying for the highest any Cougar has ever been selected. Oliver is set to make a new mark for the program, one that can never be beaten.
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