PREVIEW: Houston Cougars basketball hosts SMU Mustangs in intrastate battle

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Kevin M Cox/AP/Shutterstock (13652827x) Houston forward Ja’Vier Francis is defended by North Florida forward Carter Hendricksen under the basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, in Houston North Florida Basketball, Houston, United States – 06 Dec 2022

PREVIEW: Houston Cougars basketball hosts SMU Mustangs in intrastate battle

The Houston Cougars basketball team, ranked second in both The Associated Press and USA Today coaches polls, hosts Southern Methodist University on Thursday evening inside the Fertitta Center.

Houston (14-1, 2-0 American Athletic) enters the game coming off a win against Central Florida on New Year’s Eve, while SMU (6-8, 1-0 AAC) is just days removed from defeating Tulsa in a lopsided fashion.

“They are really good in transition,” Houston Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson told reporters on a Tuesday Zoom call. “They’ve got the No. 1 scorer in the conference in [sophomore guard] Zhuric Phelps.”

Phelps enters the game averaging 18.1 points along with 2.6 assists and 1.6 steals per outing. The Mustangs also have another strong senior guard in Zach Nutall, Sampson said. He is averaging 14.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game for SMU.

“Second-year guys, like Quentin [Grimes’] second year here. Nutall last year was just trying to figure it out, first year [after the transfer], this year he is playing really, really well,” Sampson said. “They got two high-level guards in Phelps and Nutall.”

The Mustangs rely on sophomore guard Jalen Smith to run the offense as a point guard, the head coach added. He also pointed out senior forward Samuell Williamson, who is averaging nine points and 7.2 rebounds per contest. Senior forward Efe Odigie is also averaging 7.2 boards per game.

Sampson had high praise for first-year SMU head coach Rob Lanier.

“I can’t tell you how impressed I am with the job Rob Lanier has done,” Sampson said. “He’s done a great job. He’s got his team playing good. He’s got good players. They’re going to be a tough out from here out.”

The Mustangs started the season 3-7, but since then, they have won three of their last four games. The lone loss in that stretch came at the hands of Hawaii in the Diamond Head Classic. The Rainbow Warriors beat SMU on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from junior guard JoVon McClanahan.

Houston and SMU will tip off at 6 p.m. and air on ESPN2 and KPRC 950 AM radio.

“Forget their record,” Sampson said. “New coach, new school, new system, new players, trying to figure it out, and then they did, and now they’re rolling. They are really playing well right now.”

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