Men's Basketball Sports

As March nears, UH has checklist of areas for improvement

WIth a win over Tulane on Wednesday, UH (25-2, 13-1 AAC) would clinch at least a share of the AAC regular-season title. | Anh Le/The Cougar

WIth a win over Tulane on Wednesday, UH (25-2, 13-1 AAC) would clinch at least a share of the AAC regular-season title. | Anh Le/The Cougar

While Houston is on the cusp of winning its fourth regular-season American Athletic Conference championship, which the Cougars would at least clinch a share of with a win over Tulane on Wednesday night, Kelvin Sampson has more pressing things on his mind.

Maintaining a lead down the stretch, which point guard Jamal Shead has repeatedly described as something that comes with maturity, is at the top of the Cougars’ checklist to fine-tune over their final four regular season games.

“We’ve got to figure out how to get better when we have a 13, 14-point lead,” Sampson said.

While UH hasn’t lost since falling to Temple on Jan. 22, the Cougars have “let go of the rope” when they have built up big leads in recent games, according to Shead.

Up 23 on SMU with about eight minutes remaining, the Mustangs cut the deficit to 11 in just five minutes. Similarly, UH saw its 14-point advantage over Memphis quickly dwindle down to only four points. The Cougars won both of these games, but the mere fact that they allowed both the Mustangs and Tigers to claw their way back into the game didn’t sit well with the team.

With March approaching, UH’s veterans know that one slip up can be the end of a team’s season which is why such a heavy emphasis has been put on protecting a lead. 

“Once you get that lead, you have to know how to maintain it,” Shead said. “March is right around the corner. If you don’t know how to maintain a lead, you aren’t going to go very far.”

Another thing on Sampson’s bucket list is getting more of his players involved on the offensive glass.

UH, which ranks 18th in the NCAA with 12.67 offensive rebounds per game, gets 60 percent of its offensive rebounds from four players — J’Wan Roberts (69), Jarace Walker (54), Ja’Vier Francis (47) and Reggie Chaney (35).

Sampson has always put an emphasis on every one of his players crashing the glass, regardless of their position.

Tramon Mark leads all UH guards with 35 offensive rebounds. Freshman Terrance Areceneaux is the next closest with 21. 

Finding ways to get his guards more involved on the offensive glass as well as getting the bigs to become more consistent offensive rebounds is a priority for Sampson.

“We’ve got to figure out how to get other people involved in offensive rebounding,” Sampson said.

Shead, UH’s defensive leader, also said he feels that the team’s transition defense can improve even with the Cougars already allowing the nation’s fewest amount of points per game.

While none of these have been fatal up to this point, the Cougars know cleaning up these areas before tournament time arrives could end up being whether they are the ones cutting down the nets in their own backyard at NRG Stadium come April 3.

“We’re pretty good at knowing how to win when that time comes, but not every situation can go your way,” Shead said. “You’ve got to stop putting yourself in that situation at some point.”

It can be tempting for the nation’s No. 1 team to look ahead to the postseason, but Sampson refuses to allow his team to look any further than the game right ahead of them.

That next test for UH to demonstrate further growth and maturity comes Wednesday against Tulane.

“We have to play better, and we can play better,” Sampson said.

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