New league, same old Houston: How the Cougars adjusted seamlessly to the Big 12

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New league, same old Houston: How the Cougars adjusted seamlessly to the Big 12

Leave it to Houston — the best defense in men’s college basketball — to turn missing shots into a winning formula.

The Cougars picked up a key road victory over Cincinnati on Saturday, coming back from a seven-point deficit early in the second half to win 67-62 and hold onto first place in the Big 12 standings. In a defensive slugfest reminiscent of the rock fights the two sides used to have as American Athletic Conference foes, Houston clawed its way to a win with an unconventional strategy.

“Get it up on the rim,” head coach Kelvin Sampson said afterward. “(Cincinnati’s bigs) were usually helping up in the paint, and that opened us up for offensive rebounds. That was a big part of our game plan.”

It worked. The Bearcats are one of the best rebounding teams in college basketball this season on both ends of the floor, but Houston finished plus-seven on the glass, most notably with a 17-9 advantage on the offensive boards and 22-14 advantage on second-chance points. Point guard Jamal Shead played the role of an oddly inefficient yet effective talisman for the Coogs, scoring 16 points on just 6 of 25 from the field. But he also had zero turnovers, and 13 of his 19 misses were inside the 3-point arc, several of which were corralled and put back by senior forward J’Wan Roberts, who led the way with 20 points on 10 of 15 shooting and eight rebounds, half coming on the offensive end.

“I kept getting to spots that made it easier for us to offensive rebound,” said Shead. “Draw in a big, and if I make it, I make it, but I knew (our bigs) would be there. Coach told me to keep shooting.”

Sampson acknowledged his team needs to shoot better moving forward, particularly from deep, where they were just 3 of 16 against Cincinnati. Yet the win was indicative of what Houston basketball has become in his 10th season at the helm. The Cougars are a grind-it-out but well-balanced operation, finishing in the top 11 of KenPom’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency metrics each of the previous three seasons, earning trips to the Final Four, Elite Eight and Sweet 16, respectively. This year’s offense is still top 20 in KenPom, but the defense — and overall efficiency ranking — is No. 1. They guard at all three levels, block shots at a higher rate than any team in the country (despite zero rotational players over 6-foot-8), and turn opponents over on a quarter of their possessions. They set barricades instead of screens on one end and defend the halfcourt like a high-pressing soccer team on the other, constantly pushing you farther and farther away from the basket. If you do somehow manage to get near the hoop, you’re getting swatted or clobbered. That swarming physicality is the prevailing identity of a program that has made the smoothest of transitions from the AAC to the Big 12.

Houston’s statistical rankings

CategoryKenPom rank

Adjusted defensive efficiency

1

Effective FG percentage defense

1

Block percentage

1

Steal percentage

3

2-point percent defense

6

3-point percent defense

7

Offensive rebound percentage

5

Turnover percentage

7

Defensive turnover percentage

4

*through games of Feb. 11

On the heels of an undefeated nonconference slate that included Quad 1 wins over Utah, Dayton, Xavier and Texas A&M, Houston is 8-3 in its inaugural season of Big 12 play. With wins over BYU, Texas Tech and Texas and all three losses on the road, Houston navigated realignment to become one of the top teams in the best conference.

“For us, moving leagues — I don’t know how to explain it, and I do want to make sure I say it the right way — but we just changed the teams we were playing. We haven’t changed anything on who we are, what we value,” Sampson said on Saturday, reciting his team’s five turnovers, 17 offensive rebounds and 22 second-chance points off the stat sheet. “We would do that in any league we play in, because that’s who we are. We defend, rebound, take care of the ball — that’s our holy trinity. We’ve been pretty good at it.”

Sampson still reiterated the challenges of the Big 12 schedule: having to play at Texas, at Kansas and at Cincinnati over a two-week stretch, and the upcoming Saturday-to-Monday turnaround against Texas and Iowa State at home. It’s a nonstop maelstrom, but one the Cougars are built for.

“That’s the beauty of this team: We’ve got guys who have winning DNA,” said Sampson. “We’ve created a culture here over the years of being able to win in these environments. And it’s not easy.”

Houston has already proven Big 12-worthy. What’s left is whether this particular roster has enough to win the conference and make another March Madness run. In addition to the defense, the Cougars have stellar, experienced guards, led by Shead, an All-America candidate (12.7 points per game, 3.6 rpg, 5.8 apg), and Baylor transfer L.J. Cryer (14.8 ppg, 37.2 percent 3FG).

Depth, however, could be an issue. Sophomore Terrance Arceneaux, a versatile 6-foot-6 wing, was averaging 18 minutes through 11 games before a torn Achilles tendon sidelined him for the season. Senior guard Damian Dunn, who transferred in after averaging 15 points a game for Temple last season, was expected to provide some scoring pop off the bench but has struggled to find his rhythm in a new setting, averaging just seven points on 37 percent shooting. Joseph Tugler is a promising four-star freshman who’s still very raw. Cincinnati initially rallied back from a 13-point first-half deficit while Cryer and fellow starter Emanuel Sharp were saddled with foul trouble, but Texas Tech transfer Mylik Wilson came in clutch off the bench, registering all of his four points, seven rebounds, two assists and three steals in the second half. The Coogs will need more of that down the stretch.

Positional size has given Houston problems at times as well. Shead and Cryer are both listed generously at 6-foot-1, and Roberts, while a brute on the inside, is just 6-foot-7. The team’s three losses all came against bigger, longer and defensively adept opponents: Iowa State, Kansas and TCU.

Winning DNA can mask a lot of defects. Short on bodies and shooting touch against the Bearcats, Sampson leaned on Shead and Roberts, with Shead getting downhill on middle ball screens and Roberts anchoring in the post on repeat. Both were freshmen for the Final Four run in 2021, losing to eventual national champions Baylor, where Cryer was also a freshman. If Houston has another run in it, those three will have to lead the charge while also weathering the rest of the regular season. The remaining seven games feature a pair of Quad 2 and five Quad 1 matchups, including Iowa State at home, Baylor on the road, and a home rematch against a Kansas squad that shot nearly 70 percent while delivering a 13-point loss in Houston’s worst showing of the season.

Of course, that type of performance has been the outlier in recent seasons, this one included. It’s a make-or-miss sport, but Houston tends to win regardless.

“Whoever we play, we try to stay within ourselves,” said Sampson. “We’ve had some good results over the years playing that way.”

(Photo of Houston’s Jamal Shead: Michael Hickey / Getty Images)