For Houston Cougars basketball, developing bench a key focus heading into March

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Christian Smith/AP/Shutterstock (13760019k) Houston guard Terrance Arceneaux, left, grabs a rebound during the second half of the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Tulsa, in Houston Tulsa Basketball, Houston, United States – 08 Feb 2023

For Houston Cougars basketball, developing bench a key focus heading into March

This year’s No. 2 Houston Cougars basketball team has had to do something it has not in the past, and that has been relying on multiple freshmen.

UH teams in the last few years have had freshmen play key roles, but never three. If you ask head coach Kelvin Sampson, this year’s team is relying on four. For Sampson, one of the significant things heading down the stretch for Houston will be ensuring those young players not only keep improving but are ready for important roles come March.

“I think the big thing for us is to continue to develop our bench, you know those freshmen,” Sampson said. “We have four freshmen. We have five guys that played last year. That’s it. Reggie Chaney, J’Wan Roberts, [Jamal] Shead, [Marcus] Sasser, and Tramon Mark. That’s it. Everyone else is a freshman.”

Houston’s four freshmen are forward Jarace Walker, redshirt guard Emanuel Sharp, guard Terrance Arceneaux and sophomore big man Ja’Vier Francis. Francis is considered a freshman in Sampson’s eyes because he only played sparingly last season and never in key moments behind Josh Carlton, Fabian White Jr., Reggie Chaney, and J’Wan Roberts.

All four are in UH’s nine-man rotation, and all of them have shown flashes of the talent they possess over the course of the season.

“Those four are all good players,” Sampson said. “All four contribute, impact winning for us. Not every night. Last time I checked, they bleed and they breathe, so they are going to make mistakes. But I like the fact that they are getting better.”

Walker has started in 24 of Houston’s 25 games, the lone exception being a home game against South Florida, in which he did not play due to illness. The New Freedom, Pennsylvania, native has begun to produce on a consistent basis.

In his last five games, dating back to Houston’s Jan. 25 outing against Central Florida, Walker is averaging 17.2 points and six rebounds.

“His valleys are starting to balance out his peaks some,” Sampson told reporters in a Zoom call earlier in the week.

Sharp has become Houston’s first guard off the bench in most of the team’s recent outings. Francis, depending on the game, is the team’s first big man off the bench, and Arceneaux is the Cougars’ second reserve guard.

For the Houston Cougars, everything starts in practice. In order for anyone to contribute, they have to do it behind closed doors first.

When it comes to the veterans on the roster, it is their responsibility to establish the standard for those younger players, which is how they plan on helping them continue to develop in the final weeks of the season.

“That is the biggest thing I try to do [is] just show them the culture and how hard and how much it is going to take to win when we do get there,” Chaney recently said on the Kelvin Sampson radio show. “Every day, I just try to go as hard as I can to show those guys this is how tough and how hard we got to play in order to win.”

Houston’s philosophy is that by going all out in practice, everyone has no choice but to improve.

“We go so hard in practice it is like you are forced to get better,” Mark told Gallery Sports in Philadelphia. “As long as they keep practicing hard, it is going to come for them.”

The key after showing out in practice is translating it to the games. Once the younger players begin to consistently perform against opponents, it gives Sampson even more trust in them.

In order for Houston to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, it is going to be crucial for the Cougars’ younger guys to produce on a constant basis.

“It’s important for me and Terrance, [Ja’Vier], and [Reggie] to come in and give them guys a breather,” Sharp said. “Just playing well when we are out there gives coach the confidence, like confidence in this bench to put us in when the starters need a break.”

For Sampson, figuring out how to evolve his younger players is simple.

“You just always trying to keep developing those freshmen,” the head coach said. “There is no magic formula to it. I don’t have no secrets. It is just get in there, see how they are playing, and if they are impacting winning, they get to play more. If they are not, then they don’t. Simple as that.”

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