Houston Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson during the team’s 2022 NCAA Tournament run. The Cougars made it to the Elite Eight. (Courtesy Sean Thomas)
The Houston Cougars basketball team continued to take care of business on Saturday, beating a pesky Kent State Golden Flashes team 49-44 at Fertitta Center. The Cougars were not at their best, but they rode their defense to a win over a surprisingly tough Kent team. The Cougars’ offense was not on its game, but Houston escaped with a narrow victory thanks to its ability to keep the other team from scoring.
UH might want to get used to the target on its back.
When the polls come out this week, the Cougars could be No. 1 for the first time since the Phi Slama Jama days, as top-ranked North Carolina lost to Iowa State earlier in the week. The University of Texas could very well be No. 2.
UH coach Kelvin Sampson will tell you rankings don’t mean anything right now. And he would be correct. But it is a testament to the program he has built that this team is getting such national respect.
The Cougars are loaded, with veterans Marcus Sasser, Jamal Shead, and Tramon Mark working with freshmen Jarace Walker and Terrence Arceneaux to form a formidable group. J’Wan Roberts, Reggie Chaney, Emmanuel Sharp, Ramon Walker – these Cougars are deep and talented.
Like the Astros, it is always someone different for UH. On Saturday, it was Roberts with 11 points and 14 rebounds to lead the way, along with Sasser, who managed 19 points despite going 1-for-10 from three. Houston struggled on offense, only leading by two at the half before pulling away for a tough, grind-it-out win.
The Cougars are not going to be undefeated. The schedule ahead has more than its share of potential pitfalls.
The next big test will be St. Mary’s next Saturday. The Gaels are 6-1 with a win over Vanderbilt and a tough OT loss to Washington. St. Mary’s won an NCAA tournament game last year to cap off a 24-win season.
A week later, the Cougars will host Alabama, a team that beat UH last year in a controversial finish.
One week after that, Houston travels to Virginia to take on a top-10 team on the road, in an ACC barn. That could be a seriously tough test. UH pounded Virginia last season, but that was at home, and this is an improved Cavaliers team. This could easily be the game of the week.
After that, it is probably a couple of late-season games against Memphis where the Coogs will be tested. Of course, every game is a test, as Sampson will tell you. And if the Cougars are No. 1, they will get everyone’s best effort with a target on their back. Still, the AAC has not looked great in preconference play, with Memphis dropping games and perennial powers Wichita State, Cincinnati, and SMU looking pedestrian so far.
The Cougars are looking anything but. And yes, it is early and not meaningful, but being No. 1 would say a lot about where this team is headed. Being No. 1 at the end when the Final Four comes to NRG is what really matters. And Sampson’s team will get better as the season goes on, because that is what they do.
And that’s a scary thought. Because this team is already pretty good.
Maybe the best in the country.