Men's Basketball Sports

Wounded Cougars close in on landmark Big 12 title

Houston is one win away from winning a Big 12 title in its first season in the league. | Anh Le/The Cougar

On Jan. 13, after the Cougars had just finished their first-ever Big 12 road trip with a pair of disappointingly close losses at Iowa State and TCU — two defeats by a combined five points — a conference title seemed increasingly distant.

While Houston was still clearly a top team in the conference and looked nearly unbeatable at home, life on the road in the Big 12 was a far cry from the relatively cushy schedule of the AAC in recent years. It looked like the team would spend the rest of the year dealing with growing pains in the league’s many hostile environments, scrounging for road wins when possible.

However, 53 days later, and despite a run of season-ending injuries to key pieces such as freshman Joseph Tugler and redshirt sophomore Ramon Walker, the top-ranked Cougars have rattled off 12 wins in their last 13 games and are just one win away from clinching a share of the Big 12 regular season title in year one. Since the TCU loss, Houston has lost just one of its last six road games to earn the best road record in the league at 5-3.

We’ve been a winning program for a long time,” said redshirt senior forward J’Wan Roberts. “It doesn’t really matter what conference we play in, we’re still going to be consistent.”

Roberts has helped spur the Cougars’ rapid improvement on the road. In the team’s last seven road games, the veteran big man’s stats have risen to 14.1 points and 8.8 boards per game — a significant bump from his season averages of 9.9 points and 6.9 rebounds.

Time and time again, Roberts has come up huge in tough environments, including 17 points, three blocks and an astonishing six steals in the UH’s overtime win at No. 11 Baylor. At Oklahoma on Saturday, Roberts poured in 20 points, returned from a deep right-hand laceration to help the already-shorthanded Cougars and recovered a loose ball to set up Jamal Shead’s game-winning jumper.

“One thing I tell myself all the time going into big games like that or in a road game is you know, we’re all we’ve got. We’ve just got to stick together,” Roberts said. “Everybody can play well at home. You’ve got the energy behind you the crowd behind you. But going on the road, it takes a different type of mentality to do that.”

On the bench, players like redshirt senior guard Mylik Wilson have stepped up to relieve minutes from high-minute guards Shead and L.J. Cryer, while graduate guard Damian Dunn has made big plays despite an up-and-down year. The most recent guy to step up to the plate, however, is a previously bench-warming redshirt freshman center from the Ivory Coast, Cedric Lath.

Lath joined the team midway through last season and had thus far only seen a few minutes here and there in blowouts for UH. But when rising star Joseph Tugler was ruled out for the year with a broken foot before the OU game, Lath was thrust into the first significant minutes of his career.

The hulking, 6-foot-9 center played 10 crucial minutes while starter Ja’Vier Francis sat out with early foul trouble, grabbing two boards and swatting a floater back to the stands.

I had fun, Coach (Kelvin Sampson) told me, ‘Just play your game and that’s it,'” Lath said, “I think the advice (from teammates) that really helped me the most is just ‘Play like your head is on fire.'”

Now, with the Big 12 title in reach, players like Cryer, who won two conference championships in three years at Baylor, have begun to recognize what the feat could mean for the Cougars.

“I‘d be really special because as Houston’s first year in the Big 12, and to win in your first year, it doesn’t get any better than that,” Cryer said. “It may not be a big deal to a lot of people right now. But in 10 years, when we have a reunion down the line, and we all get back together, we’re gonna be able to come in and look up (at the banner) and know that that was ours. We made history.”

[email protected]

Leave a Comment