For Houston Cougars basketball, the message in final weeks is simple: ‘stay locked in, don’t look ahead’

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Christian Smith/AP/Shutterstock (13760019n) Tulsa guard Sam Griffin (1) is defended by Houston guard Marcus Sasser during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, in Houston Tulsa Basketball, Houston, United States – 08 Feb 2023

For Houston Cougars basketball, the message in final weeks is simple: ‘stay locked in, don’t look ahead’

The Houston Cougars basketball team is entering the home stretch of its season after having the last few days off from playing games.

No. 2 Houston has only six matchups remaining in the regular season before it heads into the American Athletic Conference postseason tournament, and then after that, the NCAA Tournament.

Despite sitting with a 23-2 record through 25 games, there is still a lot the Cougars feel like they can achieve heading down the final weeks of the campaign. One of the things Houston’s leaders are emphasizing is for the younger players to not overlook the remaining six contests.

“Stay locked in, don’t look ahead,” Houston Cougars senior guard Marcus Sasser told reporters after practice on Monday.

He was asked what his message is for the team as it enters the final month of the regular season.

“Don’t look at being [in] March Madness, you know, it’s going to come,” Sasser said. “Just take it game-by-game because every game is important, [trying] to set ourselves up to be the highest seed possible.”

Right now, the Cougars sit as one of the best teams in all of college basketball. They are poised to secure a one seed in the NCAA Tournament if they continue to play like they have for much of the season and avoid any bad losses.

From a national perspective, bad losses would probably be considered at SMU, at East Carolina, at home against Wichita State, and arguably even Tulane at home. But at the end of the day, it is all subjective to the selection committee come March.

For Houston, everything from now until when the end of the season arrives is about maintenance, head coach Kelvin Sampson said on Tuesday morning.

Gone are the extended, three-hour practices from earlier in the season when Sampson spent about an hour of that time explaining to his players where they needed to go, what specific drills were, and what the expectations were.

Now practices are somewhat different. If Sampson tells them to run full-court layups and start left-handed, his players know what he expects. If he says to run a three-man weave, 21, four, one, they know what to do, Sampson said.

In February and March, everything with UH’s practices instead is about reviewing and tweaking things.

“You’re always adding something whether it is a baseline out-of-bounds play, an after-timeout set. You’re always policing slippage,” Sampson said.

There are multiple things Houston is looking to lock in on before the tournaments begin. For Sasser, it is about rebounding and defense. For Shead, it is about playing their best ball as a team at the same time.

“We all have like a stretch of where we have played two or three really good games back-to-back, but it is not all together,” Shead said.

There have been games for the Cougars where freshman forward Jarace Walker has strung together a few strong performances. They’ve had Sasser play well in other stretches, and the same can be said about redshirt sophomore guard Tramon Mark and junior forward J’Wan Roberts, Shead said. None of them have been at the same time, he added.

“I don’t think we’ve had a game where you know we’ve all just been on the same level and been connected to a really high level,” Shead said. “I think our only example of that is our Temple second half where we all clicked on a high level, so I think our best basketball is ahead of us.”

In order for Houston to reach that peak, it is going to take some patience, but the most important thing for Shead is for the team to stay the course.

“Just keep going,” Shead said. “We are starting to play a lot better with each other. We are starting to play a lot harder, so the key for us is just giving effort every night and try not to [focus on playing] good, just try to play hard.”

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