Men's Basketball Sports

Basketball determined to raise its game in new season


Senior Rob Gray Jr. led all Cougar scorers last season with 16 points per game. | Justin Cross/The Cougar

The men’s basketball team, led by head coach Kelvin Sampson, will try to improve on last season with its sights set on an NCAA Tournament appearance.

After finishing with a respectable 22-10 record in 2015, the Cougars’ season came to a gut-wrenching end with a first-round loss to Tulane University in the conference tournament. Even with a respectable record, the team know there is ample room for growth.

Time for improvements

This season will be Sampson’s third year leading the Cougars, which he feels is the point in a tenure where a team starts to turn things around.

“Your third or fourth year is when you will start showing improvement,” Sampson said. “The first couple of years you are held hostage by what you are inherited.”

With just 13 wins in his first season as head coach, last season’s mark of 22 was a vast improvement that Sampson believes can still be increased.

To do that, Sampson’s relying on the veteran leadership of his retuning players — especially that of senior forward Danrad Knowles, junior guard Rob Gray Jr., senior guard Damyean Dotson and senior forward Bertrand Nkali.

The Cougars are returning eight players from last season, three of whom started at least 20 games. Five of the eight are seniors who will use their past experience on the team to lead the younger players.

Accompanying these returning players are 61.4 percent of the points scored last season and 55.7 percent of the rebound production.

Dotson and Gray, two of the team’s best shooters, will bring back a combined 29.9 points per game. Dotson is also returning as last season’s leader in games played, field goal percentage, three-point percentage and free-throw shooting percentage.

The Oregon transfer said that, after the past few weeks of practice, he’s ready to get back on the court in game action this week.

“I’m excited,” Dotson said. “The season hasn’t started yet so everyone has high expectations for their team. I believe in our team. We have great leadership in the returning players, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Many games ahead

Basketball will have a tough and more competitive non-conference schedule than last year’s. Four of their opponents either ranked or receiving votes in the national rankings.

This improved schedule gave Nkali hope for this season.

“We play four ranked teams in non-conference play, so we’re going to have a raise in play because we play better competition,” Nkali said. “Last year, the non-conference games weren’t as good, so that’s why we didn’t make it to the tournament. But this year, it’s way better, so I guess if we win all these games it should help our resume.”

Basketball will have plenty of time to build their resume when American Athletic Conference play kicks off.

The American is one of the strongest basketball conferences in the nation, and picking up key wins against talented conference opponents can bode well for the Cougars come selection season.

On Dec. 28, the Cougars will open up conference play on the road with a two-game trip to the University of Connecticut Huskies and the University of South Florida Bulls.

They will then return home to Hofheinz Pavilion on Jan. 4 for their home-conference opener against the University of Tulsa.

Other noteworthy matchups come on Jan. 19 and 21 when the Cougars host the University of Memphis Tigers before traveling to Dallas to take on the in-state rival Southern Methodist University Mustangs.

The Cougars will close out their season on March 5 at home when they host the East Carolina University Pirates before heading to Hartford, Connecticut to compete in the American Athletic Conference tournament.

Although the Cougars have a long season ahead, Nkali said the team should focus on individual matchups rather than the tournament at the end of the year.

“You can’t think about the tournament right now because it’s too far ahead,” Nkali said. “Just take one game at a time.”

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