Men's Basketball Sports

Hoops Progress Report: Cougar sports staff look at what’s ahead

After skating through non-conference undefeated, the Cougars will now enter a 18-game gauntlet of tough Big 12 opponents. | Oscar Herrera/The Cougar

The wait is over. On Saturday afternoon, head coach Kelvin Sampson and the No. 3 Houston Cougars will play in its first Big 12 game in program history West Virginia comes to the Fertitta Center.

After going a perfect 13-0 to start the year, 18 games in arguably the toughest conference in the nation now await the Cougars. With that in mind, we at The Cougar decided to answer some reader questions about what’s next for Houston and what to expect.

How do you think this year’s team (specifically personnel-wise) compares to last year’s? Do you think losing clutch scorers like Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark will affect the Cougar’s ability to make runs late in the second half? (question from @grande_ernie on Instagram)

Starns Leland, Sports Editor: I think in many ways this year’s team is better than the 2022-23 team. Last year’s Cougars were young on the bench and struggled with depth. Because of that, Marcus Sasser, Jamal Shead and Tramon Mark all had to play too many minutes too often down the stretch, resulting in the team being worn down when March came around.

This year’s team was running as many as 10 players deep before Terrance Arceneaux went out for the year with his Achilles tear, allowing key veterans like Shead and J’Wan Roberts to crucially maintain fresh legs into the second halves of games. Also, the 2023-24 team is making a case for Kelvin Sampson’s best defensive team ever at UH. The Cougars are top in the nation defensively according the KenPom by a WIDE margin as Shead and Roberts lead a defense that is longer and more athletic than ever.

The only thing lacking in this year’s team compared to last year is consistent offense. Both adjusted efficiency and effective field goal percentage are down a tick from last year according to KenPom. There is no replacing Naismith Player of the Year finalist Marcus Sasser, but L.J. Cryer has done a great job in filling those shoes as a dead-eye shooter and Emanuel Sharp has also taken a huge leap as a microwave-type scorer. UH has had a few long stretches of stagnation on offense, namely against Xavier and Texas A&M. But if the ball is moving consistently and players like Damian Dunn and Ja’Vier Francis continue improving, then the Cougars’ offense should be O.K.

Riley Moquin, Assistant Sports Editor: Tough to say. Last year’s team ran out of gas by the new year. This year’s squad is much deeper and that bodes very well for its aspirations in the Big 12 schedule and the tournament. It will also probably go down as a better defensive team. The biggest concern as you mention is the loss of a few major offensive weapons, and while senior guard LJ Cryer and sophomore guard Emanuel Sharp have picked up a lot of the scoring load there have also been some wild cold streaks that will be exploited by the more formidable programs Houston is competing with now.

It is also early though. This is a program with very high-level talent and some of the best coaching in the country, and Kelvin Sampson’s Houston teams have always been defensive-minded. Consistency is not built overnight, and in the case of Cryer and Sharp they are both still relatively new to their respective roles as Houston Cougars. I expect they will find their way. There is a reason this team is among the very best in the nation statistically – they are built to compete in the Big 12.

Additionally when we talk about the NCAA Tournament, this year’s squad is going to have a season facing Big 12 competition night-in and night-out. It should give the 2023-24 Cougars experience against tournament-quality teams and help make this squad more prepared for March.

Do you see any possible negatives with UH coming up against not just “better” opponents this year but also more ranked teams? (question from @grande_ernie on Instagram)

Starns: The challenge is not only that UH will play more ranked teams, but that those big games will be followed closely by yet another quality opponent … and another after that … and so on — the Big 12 grind doesn’t stop.

Rather than having to follow up a war against AAC rival Memphis with a few days off and a game against a mediocre Tulane team, the Cougars will have to turn right around and play another tough Big 12 team. After the opener against Wext Virginia, UH travels to Iowa State and then TCU before returning home for Texas Tech in the span of eight days.

Later this month, after facing No. 12 BYU on the road, Houston will have just a few days to rest before engaging in two knock-down drag-out fights against Kansas State and No. 20 Texas in 72 hours. Less than a week later, UH will travel to Lawrence, Kansas to face the fellow conference-title favorite Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse.

That’s the kind of non-stop endurance battle the Cougars will have to go through for the next two months. It’s going to be a totally new experience for UH save for Baylor transfer L.J. Cryer, and one that will almost definitely see losses that Cougars aren’t used to seeing. It will be a matter of staying healthy and even-keeled throughout that period if UH wants to have success it expects to have in the Big 12.

Riley: As we have seen across UH athletics this year, playing a Big 12 schedule can wear a team out really quickly. The depth on this squad is built to counter that fatigue but it does not make the team immune.

Aside from that the biggest drawback to this level of schedule is the likelihood of more losses. Kelvin Sampson is not too bothered by an occasional loss so long as the team is improving and looking ahead, but the AP rankings do not have the same short memory. The Cougars enter conference play as the No. 3 team in the country and the Big 12 schedule will inevitably spawn narratives around this team. The wins will each justify Houston’s reputation and the losses will each, in the eyes of the media, suggest the Cougars are being exposed by the tougher competition. Narratives do not mean much right now, but the rankings will determine UH’s seeding in the NCAA Tournament come March.

If I’m thinking about UH the last 3 years, I’m not too sure about their ability to get to the line and the ability to make those shots. From what we’ve seen so far do you think that has changed this year? I feel a program that’s good from beyond the arc could really expose them. (question from @grande_ernie on Instagram)

Starns: The Cougars’ free throw shooting hasn’t been great this year. In fact, it’s been awful at times. But they are getting the line a little more, shooting 20.5 foul shots per game compared to 17.2 last year. Though the percentage has been far from desirable (65.8% is good for 307th in Division-I hoops), Houston has hit its free throws when it mattered. UH went 7-8 from the line in its nailbiter win against Texas A&M last month, and after missing five straight against Xavier, the Cougars hit 13 of their last 15 free throws to win the game despite the offense going totally dormant.

As for defending a team that shoot three’s well, that’s what UH ran into in the Sweet 16 last year against Miami. A hot shooting team that gets out and runs the floor is the Cougars’ only real weakness, and teams in the Big 12 will surely try to play fast in hopes of beating that vaunted Sampson defense to the punch. However, I think this year’s team is better-equipped to handle or prevent that playstyle than last year.

The big men in J’Wan Roberts, Ja’Vier Francis and freshman Joseph Tugler are tremendous rebounders with the length and defensive prowess to punish any team that tries to go small, while anybody who tries to score on Jamal Shead and company on the perimeter will have a tough time doing so. Aside from a heroic shooting night from a player like Wade Taylor IV of Texas A&M had, UH feels that any team that tries to go up against this defense conventionally won’t have much of a chance

Riley: So far not much has changed in that department. Houston’s free throw percentage is at 65.8 percent, good for last place in the Big 12 as we enter the conference schedule. As mentioned with the offensive inconsistency earlier, this is one of those elements of a team that will be a nightmare against tougher opponents.

Luckily Houston has managed to still pull out wins, including against formidable programs such as Texas A&M and Xavier.  The sample size is still quite small though and it is a safe bet the Cougars will regret some free throw misses down the road. National champions and even Final Four teams are fundamentally sound on both sides of the ball. For all the excellence on the defensive end, we are still waiting to see if UH can translate that excellence to offensive fundamentals.

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