CINCINNATI— Here’s the latest top-10 in college basketball, and we all know where the brightest lights shine. Auburn and Gonzaga at the top. The blue bloods from Kentucky and Duke and Kansas. The weighty names such as Purdue and Arizona and Baylor and Texas Tech.
But what about the relentless victory factory that has not a lost a game since December 11 . . . that already has 20 victories, and only three of them by single digits . . . that has climbed to No. 6 in the Associated Press and No. 2 in the NET rankings with hardly a national murmur, even while losing two of its top scorers?
What about Houston?
Yup. The Cougars are 20-2 after rolling through here Sunday and beating Cincinnati 80-58. Taze Moore broke loose off the opening tip, slammed home a dunk with only four seconds gone, and Houston was in front to stay. About the loudest cheer for the Cincinnati crowd after that came when Super Bowl-bound Bengals running back Joe Mixon was introduced from his courtside seat. It was the Cougars’ 12th consecutive win. Onwards.
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“This time of the year there’s a lot of teams in reverse and then there’s some teams going forward,” coach Kelvin Sampson was saying afterward. “You’re going to be one way or the other. You’re either getting better or you’re not. We’ve taken a lot of pride over the years that once we get into February we just keep getting better. We practice all year for this.”
And still, when the elite get discussed nationally, Houston is not always part of the conversation. The Cougars are almost a stealth weapon. “It’s a pride thing at this point now,” forward Fabian White Jr. said. “We’re just trying to earn our respect every game.”
Here are nine things to know about Houston.
9 things to know about Houston men’s basketball
1. Houston’s defense is elite
If the stats mean anything, the Cougars are the hardest team in the nation to run an offense against. Their opponents are shooting 36 percent, lowest in Division I by nearly a point. The scoreboard shows it. They have allowed 60 points only nine times this season, and 70 twice.
2. The Cougars have overcome multiple injuries
This surge is being conducted without leading scorer and all-conference pick Marcus Sasser and top reserve Tramon Mark, both lost for the season to injuries, taking 28 points a night with them. Sasser was gone after 12 games, Mark seven. The result is limited rotation options for Sampson, with the regulars doing heavy lifting in production and minutes played.
“We have weaknesses. We walk a tightrope with fatigue and foul trouble,” Sampson said on Sunday. “We know we have a very, very small margin for error. That’s why we spend so much time on game prep and then we have to coach the game different.”
By that he means, the Cougars often have to tinker with the pace.
“You’re in a school zone, you can go 20, residential area 35, when you’re out on the open highway, depending what state you’re in, you can go 75. If you’re in Montana you can go a hundred,” Sampson said, flexing his ability as one of coaching’s most imaginative quote dispensers. “Our kids are learning to play at different speeds.”
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3. There’s experience throughout the roster
The load is being carried by an experienced collection of both the homegrown and the imported. White scored 22 points Sunday and won his 109th game as a Cougar, matching Michael Young’s school record. He has been a surprising help to the perimeter game, with 32 three-pointers this season. His first four years at Houston, he had two.
Team-leading scorer Kyler Edwards is a senior transfer from Texas Tech, Josh Carlton is a graduate transfer from Connecticut, and Moore is a graduate transfer from Cal State Bakersfield. Edwards had a scoring stretch of 29-23-25 in January, to soften the shock of Sasser’s loss. The Cougars now have four players with 1,000 career points.
4. Team chemistry is high
Houston needed helping hands after losing four frequent starters from the Final Four team, and now Sasser and Mark, too. Six key names gone. The new wave seems to be fitting together.
“I’ve been asked this a lot, why our teams always seem to have good chemistry,” Sampson said. “We shoot when we should shoot, and we pass when we should pass.”
5. The Cougars are back
The Cougars have a 9-0 conference record for the first time since 1984. That year rings a bell around Houston. It was the golden age of Phi Slama Jama, and the Cougars were in the national championship game, losing to Georgetown. They haven’t been back.
Actually, the dry spell after ’84 was worse than that. They went the next 33 years without winning an NCAA tournament game. That changed with the Sampson era, as the Cougars began climbing the ladder of March. They got past the first round in 2018, advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2019 and showed up in the Final Four last April. That ride ended with a 19-point loss to Baylor, but the message was clear enough: Houston basketball was back.
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6. Houston is three points away from an undefeated season
The Cougars are a couple of shots from being unbeaten. While 17 of their 20 victories have come by double digits, their two losses to Wisconsin and Alabama were by a combined three points.
7. The Cougars defend their home court
Their remodeled arena opened in 2018. They have played 59 home games there so far, and won 56. That includes the last 37.
8. Head coach Kelvin Sampson is an entertainer
Sampson can be as entertaining as any coach in his comments. Consider a few of the Best of Kelvin from this season.
After winning a game with an ugly field-goal percentage: “We don’t have any depth. That’s why what we’re doing is not a beauty contest. Did we shoot well? No. But this time next week, you look at our record, it’s going to count as a W, and that’s all I care about right now.”
We offend: “We have some good shooters, but the problem is they have a boot on (Sasser and Mark). You can’t go to the waiver wire and grab somebody. We are what we are.”
On the team approach: “The strength of our team is not one player. We’re like a wolf pack. Our strength is the pack.”
We progress through the season: “People who don’t know anything about competitive athletics tend to put periods after things way before they should. As the season goes on, whether it’s a win or a loss, there’s a comma. It’s not a period. The goal is to get better. You can’t draw conclusions. You shouldn’t. I certainly don’t. I look at things abstractly.”
We have a defensive game plan after a victory: “We knew exactly where we wanted to pressure them. We have tape all over the floor at practice. A piece of tape means a lot to all of us. Everything for us has a purpose.”
On Houston’s free throw shooting, with the Cougars 313th in the nation from the line: “You know what I think? I will stop practicing free throws. Maybe we are practicing free throws too much. . . close the gym and just show up for games. Can’t shoot any worse.”
On the mercurial passing of Moore: “He reminds me of a quarterback that’s going to throw four to five touchdown passes and four to five interceptions. If you go messing around with his interceptions, you probably won’t get the touchdown passes. Just about every time he whips one around, it looks like he’s taking infield half the time. When he starts whipping the ball around, he is going to make somebody happy with every pass. It’s either going to be (the opposing coach) or Kelvin Sampson.”
The impact of 1960s great Elvin Hayes on the Houston program: “Elvin Hayes is the one who dug the well. Everyone else has drank from it.”
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9. Houston is consistent
In a college basketball season of ebbs and flows, Houston is conspicuous with its consistency. Just look at the unexpected turns from the past weekend.
Duke ahead of North Carolina 31-8? Kansas up on Baylor by 34? Arizona State, with a 6-13 record, taking out No. 3 UCLA in triple overtime? Per ESPN, no unranked team had upset a top-five opponent in three or more overtimes since 1956.
Rutgers mashing Michigan State by 21, making it two 20-plus-point wins in a row for the Scarlet Knights over the Spartans? Alabama firing up 30 three-pointers at their home baskets against Kentucky and missing 27 of them? The Tide, by the way, is eighth in the nation in 3-point attempts and 318th in 3-point shooting percentage. Not a good combo.
DePaul, 1-9 in the Big East and down to only seven healthy scholarship players, leaving No. 21 Xavier with a victory? Last-place Georgia very nearly knocking off No. 1 Auburn?
All true. Meanwhile, Houston breezed by double digits again and is really impossible not to notice. The last word should come from Sampson.
“Our team knows how to win. There’s a lot to be said for that.”