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Sunday, July 12, 2020

Men's Basketball

With season’s end nearing, Houston reflects on growth, progress


Freshman guard Marcus Sasser is averaging 13.8 points, two rebounds and two assists per contest in the last five games for Houston. He had a career-high 26 points in the overtime loss against the Mustangs on Saturday night | Mikol Kindle Jr./The Cougar

Freshman guard Marcus Sasser is averaging 13.8 points, two rebounds and two assists per contest in the last five games for Houston. He had a career-high 26 points in the overtime loss against the Mustangs on Saturday night | Mikol Kindle Jr./The Cougar

The Cougars are nearing the finish line of the 2019-20 campaign and with only five regular-season games remaining, the team that began the year wide-eyed and overflowing with youth has matured after enduring the grind of a long schedule.

Each player has their own perspective on the team’s growth, but a common thread that ties together their improvement revolves around the acceptance of the basketball program’s philosophy, which was not always the case.

“We weren’t really listening to coach,” junior forward Fabian White Jr. said. “We were hearing him, but we weren’t listening, and we didn’t know how hard it is to win a game. We expected it to be easier …  but (head coach Kelvin Sampson) lets us know every day how hard it is.”

From White’s perspective, the team struggled to translate what the coaching staff wanted and instilled in practices to the games, and much of it was due to inexperience after the departures of Corey Davis Jr, Galen Robinson Jr. and Armoni Brooks.

On top of that, the Cougars had two freshmen guards on the team getting significant minutes in redshirt Caleb Mills and Marcus Sasser, who also had to adjust to playing at a higher level along with learning Houston’s style and culture.

“At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t consistent,” Sasser said. “I had bad nights and then I’d come out with good nights.”

A factor behind the streaky performances early in the year for Sasser was acclimating to the increased playing speed in the NCAA.

At times, the games seemed to be going at 100 mph for the 6-foot-1-inch guard, which led to many turnovers from the Red Oak native.

As the season progressed, Sasser and the rest of Cougars began adjusting to the expectations of the coaches, adapted to the competition, and began letting the game come naturally.

“I think I adjusted to the speed,” Sasser said. “Now the game is coming much slower to me. The reads are coming much easier. I’m not turning the ball over as much or rushing my shot.”

Sasser, in particular, has excelled as he has gotten deeper into the season.

In Saturday’s game against the Mustangs, he set a career-high with 26 points and was crucial in forcing overtime and almost stealing the contest on the road.

Sasser’s improvement is just one of many on the team and one reason behind the strides in comfort level.

“It’s just trusting the system,” White said on the team’s difference from early in the season. “We are starting to trust it a lot more. It’s just a part of the culture.”

With the final stretch of the season coming up and the American Athletic Conference tournament on the horizon, and likely the NCAA tournament after that, many players have individual and team goals they hope to reach. 

“(I want to) get my teammates more involved, no turnovers, and winning out — be the solid point guard,” Sasser said.

While the players have changed a lot throughout the year, an early goal the team set out before the season began has not, and Houston finds itself in a prime position to achieve it.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing us make this last push to get to the conference championship,” sophomore forward Cedrick Alley Jr. said. “We would be the first (UH) team in history to make it back to back.”

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