The 69-56 victory over Cincinnati on Thursday night not only clinched the second seed in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, it may have also proven to those not consistently engaged in the Houston program that the Kelvin Sampson era will be one marked by excellence. While Cougar basketball fans have believed this for quite a while, outside observers have finally taken note of the incredible rebound season that Sampson’s team has executed, from 13-19 in his first year to 22-8 in just his second, with a team full of transfers looking for a second chance.
At the outset of the 2015-2016 season, fans were cautiously optimistic. Many believed in Kelvin Sampson, but he had been tasked with almost entirely revamping the roster, after he was left with only six players when he stepped into his role as head coach in 2014. Most of former coach James Dickey’s players transferred, most notably Tashawn Thomas to Oklahoma and Danuel House to Texas A & M.
Sampson had to seek transfers to fill his roster. He found some from the junior college ranks, such as Devonta Pollard, who could play right away. But, others from four-year colleges would have to sit out a year. It would be in 2015 where the coach would have a legitimate team. But, even then, they would have to learn how to play with one another and gather their rhythm as the season progressed.
But going into Sampson’s second season, outsiders still gave the Cougars little chance of success, as they were projected to finished seventh in the conference. They, however, got out to a hot start and went 10-2 in their nonconference schedule, including a win over a Ben Simmons led LSU team. They went on to win their first three conference games, before facing their first genuine adversity of the season, which manifested itself in a four game losing streak. This team, though, refused to be defined by this rough patch, and finished the season with wins in nine of their last eleven, included victories over tough conference foes, SMU, UConn, and Cincinnati.
The strong finish to the season has some considering Houston an on the bubble team for the NCAA Tournament. They will have to make a strong showing in the AAC Tournament to make this even slightly feasible. And more realistically, they need to win it, to secure the automatic bid.
But the victory over Cincinnati in their final regular season game showed what the Cougars are capable of. Early in the game, the Bearcats hit three shots from behind the arc, going up 9-2. The Cougars, however, were unfazed. They gained the lead later in the first half and never surrendered it. They had a double-digit lead for most of the game. And while Cincinnati was playing without two of their starters, Farad Cobb and Shaq Thomas, the Cougars’ performance was a dominant well rounded 40 minutes that showed them at their best.
They had only 5 turnovers and scored 15 points from them. They went to the free throw line frequently, and hit 80% of them. But, perhaps most importantly, they had a well-rounded offensive attack. Earlier in the season, Rob Gray Jr. was the sole dominant player. He would regularly put up over 20 points. But, in the final stretch of this campaign, the offense has grown more dynamic.
Originally, this was out of necessity, as Gray missed four games with an ankle injury, and others had to step up in his absence. They did. But even since his return, Damyean Dotson and Devonta Pollard have become integral parts of the offense. Gray’s numbers have gone down, but their numbers have gone up, and this has equated to more wins and a more complete team.
The box score of this game is indicative of the shift. Both Gray and Dotson scored 13, and Pollard added 11. This more balanced attack transcends these three players, though, as Galen Robinson Jr. scored 9, Ronnie Johnson, 8, and LeRon Barnes, 7. To close the season, no one player has dominated offensively, and that has made the Cougars a better team.
While we should be proud of the entire team and how they have conducted themselves on and off the court, Thursday night’s game was really one to honor the seniors in their final home game. The pregame ceremony was nice. The four seniors, Devonta Pollard, LeRon Barnes, L.J. Rose, and Eric Weary Jr., were all accompanied by family members and given a framed jersey with their name and number emblazed on it.
It was the impromptu speeches after the game, though, that really tug on the heartstrings. After singing the alma mater, Sampson found a microphone and called his players back onto the court. Addressing the crowd, he spoke of the achievements of this team, and of his seniors in particular. Each senior then briefly spoke. Much of their words were inaudible, because of the cheering crowd, but their sentiments could be inferred by their body language and emotions. And they appeared to be ones of pride and love for Houston Cougar basketball.
Thursday night was the ideal way to celebrate the final home game for the seniors. Winning against Cincinnati in front of what was probably the best atmosphere Hofheinz has had all season was a clear indication of the direction Kelvin Sampson is bringing the program. It showed that the best is yet to come. Cougar fans have known this for a while, but it was nice to really see it in the flesh, finally happening.
Cougar basketball is back. And Kelvin Sampson is the mastermind behind its reemergence. But it was the seniors who did so much to carry out the plan, execute it, and provide the leadership to ensure that it happened.