No. 25 Houston is at the top of The American standings alongside Tulsa and Cincinnati as the final week of the regular season approaches.
The Cougars have lost four conference games in 2020 by a combined margin of six points with the latest coming in a one-point defeat to the Tigers, in which freshman guard Caleb Mills had a chance to hit a go-ahead jumper but missed.
“We’re not losing these games because we’re missing the last shot,” head coach Kelvin Sampson said on Wednesday evening. “That’s naive to think that. We’re making too many (mistakes). Too many times we go to the free-throw line under five minutes and go one for two.”
In the final 90 seconds against Memphis, the Cougars lost a three-point swing when Mills missed a free throw that would have put Houston up three. Instead, it led to junior forward Fabian White Jr. fouling Memphis’ Lester Quinones, who hit two free throws to tie the game.
The Tigers’ final point came off another free throw from Precious Achiuwa
“That’s what is hurting this team, the mental mistakes,” Sampson said. “Let’s see if they can beat us. Don’t give it to them.”
In the loss to the Tigers, junior guard DeJon Jarreau and freshman guard Marcus Sasser combined for eight turnovers and the team had 14 total, which according to Sampson, those mistakes are difficult to overcome.
“It’s easy to look at the last page,” sophomore guard Nate Hinton said. “But the little things that come from the time the game started until the key plays (all counts). It ends up being a turnover here and a miscommunication defensive assignment there and it all adds up.”
For the Cougars to improve, they have to get to the heart of the mistakes and keep addressing them to get better for as long as they have games to play.
“What is the why? Why are we doing this? Why are we running this? What are we looking for, what is the end result,” Sampson said. “We just got to keep getting better until the horn blows (and) they tell you can’t play no more.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the team had a longer film session than usual before they took the court to practice.
“We look at how we lost,” Hinton said about the film reviews. “If on that possession, we would have did this or whatever … key things. It’s like you don’t realize it until right after the game and once you look at it, it’s like OK — that’s what we could have done better.”
Hinton said the reviews are detailed and intentional to highlight the mistakes that the team is making. Sometimes the errors even end up being a good thing for the team as it lets the team get a refresher on something that was addressed as far back as June.
“It’s a good thing (the mistakes are being exposed),” Hinton said. “It’s going to help us later on in the conference tournament and in March Madness.”
As for the errors themselves, a lot of them are simple ones.
“It’s really a self thing, there’s nothing for you to work on,” Jarreau said. “We are just cleaning up little stuff that we got to get better at … It’s really nothing about our schemes.”
The inconsistencies in the team is a product of its youth, Sampson said.
“We’re not a finished product … (but) They are a team that is (a few) baskets away from being 25-3,” Sampson said. “We’re playing a lot of these teams with our C game or our B- game. When we beat Wichita State on the road that was our A game.”
With a date at UConn sandwiched in between two big rematches against Cincinnati and Memphis, Houston’s emphasis is on playing evenly for all 40 minutes.
“We got to keep our foot on the gas,” Hinton said. “Don’t play too safe but don’t play too out of control.”