Here's to the Cougars

Joel Blank: A tournament to remember, and another play to forget for UH

Kelvin Sampson did what he said he would do when he took the UH job.

If you are University of Houston basketball fan you know that your memories are filled with more heartbreak than they are celebration. Of course there was the Lorenzo Charles put back that prevented the legendary Phi Slama Jama team from winning the national championship, and in the process vaulted Jim Valvano and his NC State Wolfpack to one of the most memorable championship game finishes in NCAA tournament history. There was the loss to Georgetown in the title game in 1984 and the Final Four loss to Michael Jordan and the North Carolina Tar Heels in 1982. So Saturday night's loss to the University of Michigan at the buzzer can now officially be added the legacy of heartbreaking defeats for the Coogs in the NCAA tournament. But with that said, it should not be lost on fans of the program that Coach Kelvin Sampson and his staff did what they said they were going to do when they came to the university, and put Cougar basketball back on the map.

When Sampson left his job as an assistant coach with the Houston Rockets to take over the University of Houston basketball program, he said his goal was to return the team to prominence. He knew the history of the program, from Elvin Hayes to Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler; legends that made their mark while bringing the program and university media attention and publicity.  Sampson knew that was then and this was now and now was pretty much night and day different from the successes of the past. He also knew it had been quite some time since the Cougars had won an NCAA tournament game, let alone made a tournament appearance. That's what makes this season so special. The Cougars did what Sampson promised to do and they did so with class and an exciting brand of basketball that energized not only the campus but the entire city of Houston. (At least in the postseason).

Sampson took a team that was predicted to finish in the middle of the pack in the American Athletic Conference and guided them to a third-place finish in the regular season standings and a runner up finish in the Conference tournament. Along the way the team posted several upsets of top 25 teams and impressed critics and experts across the nation. His senior-laden roster was led by the scoring of Rob Gray and the inside presence of Devin Davis. Gray scored 39 against San Diego State, en route to giving the university its first tournament win since 1984. He also scored 62 points in his first two NCAA tournament games, the most since Steph Curry tallied 70 for Davidson. Without Gray's ability to score against Michigan Saturday night, the Cougars wouldn't have been in the game, let alone have a chance to win it. Saturday night the Coogs also would not have been in the game without Davis, who finished with 17 points and seven rebounds and made eight straight free throws down the stretch to keep Houston in the lead. Unfortunately he missed three of his final four from the charity stripe in the final minute of the game and that gave Michigan the glimmer of hope they needed to be able to win it at the buzzer.

In the end, you can scrutinize and criticize just like all of the Sunday morning point guards did in looking back at the way the Cougars lost the game. Sure you can point to missed free throws as well as lapses in the defense in the final seconds of the heartbreaking loss. The Cougars almost got burned by a last-second shot against San Diego State because they allowed a three-quarter court pass to connect and give the Aztecs a clean look at a game winning 3-pointer that luckily bounced off the rim to the left. Saturday night similar defense and a lack of pressure on the in-bounds pass allowed a half-court heave to be completed, as well as the outlet pass that led to the buzzer-beating game-winner from Michigan freshman Jordan Poole. Mistakes that they will surely see on film and wish they had to do over again. But what's done is done. The more important thing is to forget focusing on negatives and concentrate on the fact that this team wasn't given a chance against Michigan and would be headed to the Sweet 16 if not for a miracle finish. U of H came in as underdogs to one of the hottest teams in the bracket, a team that most predicted would be a lock for the sweet 16. The Cougars not only gave them a game and covered the spread, they made a statement that this team and this coach were not only worthy of advancing in the tourney, they were damn good, period.. 

The fact is, this team was an underdog the entire season and they weren't expected to finish in the top three of the conference let alone qualify for the NCAA tournament. When you factor in that the university hadn't won a game in the tournament since Drexler and Olajuwon led the famous Phi Slama Jama appearances of the early 80s, fans of the Cougars need to tip their cap and be appreciative of this team and this coach and this effort that put the program back on the map. Here's to you coach Sampson and to all of this season's team that contributed to a resurgence in Houston Cougars basketball. With a new arena on the horizon, the new basketball practice facility and a new class of recruits coming in, let's hope the future is bright and the best is yet to come.


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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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