U of H taking team basketball to the next level as they head into the postseason without a bonified star

How far can the Cougars go in the NCAA Tournament?

Kelvin Sampson has the Cougars rolling. Bob Levey/Getty Images

We know how far the University of Houston Men's Basketball team has come over the last several years, the real question now is how far can this season's team go? Coach Kelvin Sampson and his staff have done a fantastic job putting together and molding a team that was a buzzer beater away from beating Michigan and getting to the Sweet 16 a year ago. That Wolverines team would be the national runner-up after losing to Villanova in the title game and had everyone wondering what could've been for the Coogs?

Even though the loss was incredibly disappointing and tough to swallow, advancing to the second round of the tournament was a milestone that hadn't happened since the team lost to Georgetown in the National Championship game in 1984. It was the next progression in a steady climb back to national prominence for Coach Sampson and for the program. After the wild ride of last season, there was plenty of uncertainty heading into this year with the squad losing leading scorer Rob Gray as well as versatile big man Devin Davis. Were they headed for a letdown or could they continue to progress and build on their recent success?

The answers came quickly and surprised everyone as they were able to overcome the loss of Gray and Davis and win their first 15 games. The team not only appeared in the top 25, but they also steamrolled into the top 10 and in doing so, got the school as high as they had been in the polls since the days of Phi Slamma Jamma.

The beauty of this years' roster is there is no one player that dominates the locker room or the box score. They play like a team on both ends of the floor, sharing the ball, making the extra pass, switching, rotating and cleaning the glass. They are athletic and versatile as they get in your face on defense, playing the passing lanes aggressively, while on offense they push the tempo and knock down the three ball. Sampson and his staff make sure the team stays grounded and never gets too high or too low and only worries about the next game on the schedule and not what they are ranked or how far they can go in the tournament. The truth is, the way this team plays and how hard they compete has a lot of folks thinking they can play with anyone in the country.

It's a true compliment to Coach Sampson that this team plays as hard as it does, defends at such a high level and finds a way to win close games by playing smart and staying fundamentally sound. When you don't have an all-American type player like Gray was a year ago, it requires a buy-in from everyone on the squad to do whatever it takes and assume any role required. Players can't afford to take a night off as they have to make individual sacrifices to assure team success.

Every night the Cougars exert extra energy and hustle on every play to assure there are no letdowns and they hold each other accountable both on and off the floor. If you aren't a great coach that teaches and nurtures his team on a daily basis and gets them to believe in the concepts and philosophies that will be essential, you will see more players tuning out and rebelling than diving on loose balls and making hustle plays to win games.

Sampson leads by example with heart and determination, teaching and encouraging his players to leave it all on the floor and good things will happen. He makes sure they know he believes in them and in return they believe in what he is preaching and they give him everything they have. That's a recipe for success that has led to a regular season conference championship and could lead to a whole lot of joy in the middle of March Madness. Regardless of how far they go, they have made the entire city proud with all they have already accomplished and Sampson deserves consideration for coach of the year.

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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