Men's Basketball Sports

New conference, new opponents, same grind: Cougars ready to face Big 12 challenge

Houston blew out West Virginia 89-55 Saturday in its first-ever Big 12 game. | Anh Le/The Cougar

Just two days after their Big 12 debut ended in a blowout win over West Virginia, The No. 3-ranked Cougars have already set their eyes on their next target. The players have just a few days — one of which will be spent traveling to the snowy town of Ames, Iowa — before they face 11-3 Iowa State Tuesday.  

But the grind is only just beginning for The Cougars, who will be on the road again against TCU,  a fellow 11-win team, the following Saturday, with 12-2 Texas Tech coming to town just four days later. Luckily, it’s a grind senior guard L.J. Cryer, who spent three years at Baylor, and head coach Kelvin Sampson are all too familiar with. 

“You’ve got to bring it every single night,” Cryer said. “I mean, this team is probably just a little bit better, but you’ve just got to attack every day.”

Three games, two of which are on the road, against (currently) 11-plus win teams that rank in the Top 40 of KenPom — all in the span of just nine days. Later this year, Houston will have a similar stretch against BYU, Kansas State, Texas and Kansas between Jan. 23 and Feb. 3, and two instances of having two games in three days.

The Cougars may have had some three-game weeks in the AAC, but never against teams of this caliber. Now, it’s a new norm that UH will have to get used to in the Big 12.

“That is the tough thing about playing in the Big 12,” Sampson said. “When I was in the league before, we had a lot of Saturday-Monday games. We’d play Oklahoma State in Stillwater on Saturday afternoon, then play Texas at home on Monday. But you’re in that (kind of) league.”

The most important thing for such games, according to Cryer, is to be able to maintain a short memory, re-focus on the upcoming game and stay fresh physically.

“A lot of those times you have a Saturday, Monday, game is usually a really good team, and then a really good team again,” Cryer said. “So you can’t kind of dwell on those wins. You’ve just got to flush it mentally and get on to the next one, because the next day you got the scouting report, so you’ve got to really lock in and stay off your legs.”

 While the condensed Big 12 schedule will be new to everyone except Cryer and the head coach, players such as senior point guard Jamal Shead are confident  in the team’s ability to deal with the physical challenges the next two months may bring. Shead pointed to September, the Cougars’ most rigorous month of conditioning, as a more than adequate precursor to conference play.

“I feel like our September prepared us for this,” Shead said. “Nothing we do during the season will ever compare to that, so if we could tough that out I think we’ll be fine.”

Another challenge for UH playing in a new conference is the lack of acquaintance with its new opponents. Rather than having previous years of film playing against in-conference players and coaches, many of the Cougars’ games will be against teams that they’ve never seen before — much like the NCAA Tournament, as Sampson compared it.

“You’re playing 18 NCAA Tournament games,” Sampson said. “We’ve been to the tournament enough times to get ready for the next game and have no familiarity with any of those teams. And it’s kind of like being the NCAA Tournament because just about every team you play either is or will be a potential tournament team.”

But amid new challenges already here and on the way, the team feels that it is on the right track and still has plenty of improving to do, and is seeing it in practice.

The first practices after Christmas are typically some of the hardest of the under Sampson but on the day after Christmas, the coach’s attempts to shock the team back into shape were unsuccessful simply because the players were already in shape.

“I tried to hurt’em but I couldn’t, and that was a little bit surprising,” Sampson said. “Our guys are in pretty good shape.”

After a long practice two days before the West Virginia game, Shead told the media that the team’s preparation was as good as it had been all year. In fact, the last time UH was practicing so well in January was his freshman year in 2021 — the year the Cougars went to the Final Four. It was largely, according to Shead, due to the bench players’ (or ‘white team’ as they’re called due to their practice jersey color) ability to push the starters.

“Our practices are really getting better by everyone,” Shead said. “We pushed those guys that were ahead of us (in 2021). This year, those guys are pushing us. Everybody’s contributing and we’re making each other better.”

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