Basketball Season In Review

After the 2012-13 season ended for the Cougars with a tough 88-84 overtime loss at George Mason in the quarterfinals of the CBI (one week after beating hated rival Texas), head coach James Dickey was gracious enough to call me so we could discuss the season and where the Coogs go from here.

As he has just completed his third season along Cullen Boulevard, Dickey has the program on the upswing (record wise) as he has improved each season, guiding the team from a 12-18 record during the 2010-11 to 15-15 and 20-13 seasons the following two seasons (though a three year conference run of 4-12 and two 7-9 records in a weak Conference USA has been underwhelming to say the least). 

Coach Dickey’s thoughts on the season and where the program is heading as it enters the conference formerly known as the Big East (as of this writing the new name is unknown), “I’m really excited about the way our team improved over the past six weeks of the season. I was disappointed that we didn’t get off to a better start in January to the conference portion of our schedule but our team did respond by winning our last three regular season games and our first game in the conference tournament. Of course you’re always disappointed when you don’t make the NCAA tournament so our guys will be getting back to work soon. We’ve got a lot of really good young players and we’ll add some pieces to the puzzle. We’re really looking forward to the new league as well as to the players we have returning and the incoming players for next year so we’re really thrilled with the future of our program.”

Cougars radio play-by-play man Tom Franklin basically agrees with Dickey, “I think this team really ‘got it’ in the final five weeks. It started with the mid-February win over UTEP. Perhaps that was due to starting (Tione) Womack at the point. They figured out how they must compete to win. 3 OT's versus Tulsa, played Memphis tough on the road, come from behind win at Tulane, beating Texas, and coming from 19 down versus George Mason. TaShawn (Thomas) and Joe (Young) will be in their 3rd years next season and should become team leaders in the locker room. That was missing this year because no one had been here more than one season. They still need to player tougher, but it is definitely getting better. They will face tougher teams next year, but I think they will be able to stand up to the challenge. I don't see them being embarrassed by anyone. I am extremely optimistic about next season.”

On the team becoming tougher as a whole, Dickey doesn’t necessarily think that the Cougars style of play needs to change entering a new conference next season but does think the team needs to get tougher, “as far as style we’re going to play the same way but as far trying to make sure that we’re a very tough team, both mentally and physically – yes we will work on that along with working hard in the weight room. Guys know they need to add some bulk and strength so we will be concentrating on those.”

Also on the move to the new conference, Dickey doesn’t think a new philosophy is needed in regards to out-of-conference scheduling despite the upgrade in conferences, though he would like to add a ‘marquee’ name or two, “Well the conference schedule is going to be extremely tough with the likes of adding Cincinnati, Louisville, Connecticut, Temple, Rutgers, South Florida. Right now it looks like it’s going to be an 18 game conference schedule that will be a home and home with everybody so those are going to be some marquee names and then certainly we’ll look to find another marquee game or two in our non conference schedule. What I’d like to do is bring someone (team) to Hofheinz and that’s been a challenge. A lot of people want to play you but they don’t want to come to Hofheinz.” Dickey has indicated that he has spoken with Rice head coach Ben Braun and they both would like to continue to schedule one another during the non-conference portion of their schedules.  

Since Pat Foster took over for Cougars legend and hopeful Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member Guy V. Lewis (an announcement will be made on Monday April 8th at 11AM EST and will be broadcast on NBA TV) before the 1986-87 season, the Cougars have only participated in FOUR NCAA Tournaments over the past 27 years (spanning six coaching tenures). Three of those tourney appearances were led by Foster (for the 86-87, 89-90 and 91-92 seasons) while Tom Penders led the Coogs to an improbable run to the ‘Big Dance’ (their first in 18 years), by winning four straight games to win the 2010 CUSA tournament. This all after Lewis guided the team to 14 NCAA tourney appearances in a 24 year span (1960-61 through the 83-84 seasons) including four Final4 appearances. With all of the high school basketball talent in the Greater Houston area, what has been at the crux of the Cougars struggles over the past few decades?? Well if anyone knew the answer to that the problem would not have manifested itself over the past few decades, however, one thing is certain; a lack of talent can’t be blamed for the malaise that’s hovered over the program with youngsters such as the aforementioned TaShawn Thomas and Joseph Young along with uber-talented true freshmen; Danuel House and Valentine Izundu all returning after stellar seasons. Thomas, at 6-foot-8 235 pounds, is a true presence in the paint but played out of position most of the season at center (or the ‘5’). The sophomore has started 63 of 63 possible games and has averaged 14 points and 9 rebounds (16.9 and 9.7 respectively this past season). The Killeen native is a versatile ‘big’ who has range on his mid range jumper and is a better than average ball handler for his size. With a true low post presence at the ‘5’ in Izundu asserting himself next season, I truly believe the best is yet to come from Thomas. This for Thomas all despite already being named to the CUSA All-Freshman team (along with Young) last season along with being named a member of the All-CUSA First Team this season.

For Thomas to continue his improvement, it’s imperative that Valentine also step up his game as the true freshman only averaged two points and one rebound per game in eight minutes while playing in only 20 games this season. One reason for the inconsistent play could be tendonitis in his knees that has plagued him much of the season. One thing is for certain; the potential for him to control the paint is evident as his 22 blocks in limited playing time would attest. His block during the late stages of the GM game where he soared to swat what would have been an easy dunk was Hakeem Olajuwonesque, and he seems to have one of these moments almost each game. He also reminds me of a young Hakeem, especially with those goggles. While maybe some mentoring by ‘The Dream’ or ‘The Big E’ (Elvin Hayes who works along side Franklin during the Cougars radio broadcasts) could help the 6-foot-10 inch true freshman, alas Dickey told me that would not be possible as NCAA rules don’t allow people who are not on your staff to work directly with players.

The Lamar Consolidated product also needs to add weight to his light 215 pound frame as Franklin states, “Valentine needs to hit the weight room hard this summer, but for someone as young and relatively inexperienced he shows great instincts, especially on the defensive end.” If both Izundu and Thomas play up to their potential they could be one of the best 4/5 combos in the entire nation as Dickey mentions, “That’s a big frontline and both of them are shot blockers which certainly helps your defense. Valentine was really making good progress and then his knee got really sore but when he did play he was very effective. The thing about him is just that he’s going to improve and improve as he just turned 18 years old in February.”

Starting alongside Valentine and Thomas next season will be Young and House along the perimeter with probably Tione Womack at the point. The Cougars head man said, “TaShawn, Danuel and Joe certainly led us offensively and they’re three very talented players but there are areas where they need to continue to improve and work on. Joe has gotten better each year he’s been here as has TaShawn and Danuel certainly will as well. Danuel was the CUSA Freshman of the year, TaShawn was first team all conference and all district and Joe was on the all conference team (along with leading the conference in scoring 18 points per game).”

House, who was ranked the 19th best athlete by ESPN for the class of 2012, was third on the team in both scoring (12.4) and rebounding (4.9) as his long 6-foot-6 inch frame helped him in the paint. He was also athletic enough to finish with 31 steals on the season, or almost one per game on average.  The Sugarland Hightower standout needs to shoot more in my opinion, or become more assertive, as he only averaged 9 shots per game, though that could be difficult when you have talented offensive players such as Young and Thomas as teammates and you’re as selfless as House is.

As talented as Thomas, Young, House and Izundu are, the position that gave the Cougars the most problems last season was point guard. As much heart as J.J. Thompson has, the 6-foot guard just didn’t have the assist-to-turnover ratio (83 to 59) needed to run the team successfully. The final five to six week stretch where the team started playing better (previously mentioned by both Dickey and Franklin) had a lot to do with Tione Womack being inserted into the starting lineup. The 6-foot-1 inch CC transfer (Hagerstown Community College out of Frederick, Maryland) was below average offensively as he only averaged 2.7 points per game but had a team best 84 assists and a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio in only 19 minutes per game (though he averaged much more over the final 12 games of the season in which he started). Coach Dickey on Womack, “I thought Tione did a terrific job for us in doing a great job of running the team and handling the ball for us. He just needs a good off-season in the weight room.” As far as Brandon Morris, Womack’s main backup and also a CC transfer (out of Kansas City Community College) Dickey says, “We need to get Brandon playing more and being more assertive and playing with more confidence because he has a lot of skill. Both are a little tentative (in shooting) but I think a year in the program will help.”

That last statement by Dickey on the lack of assertiveness by both point guards is why my favorite lineup over the course of the season has had Young at the point along with House and either Jherrod Stiggers or Laron Barnes at the wings as that’s the most athletic lineup and say what you will about Stiggers and Barnes but at least they aren’t afraid to shoot the ball. Dickey on playing Young at the point, “You have to make sure that you have the right mentality to play the point and though Joe hasn’t played much at the point, we have used him some there in a couple of different situations this year and the way we played with three perimeter guys who have all handled the ball at different times. I just look at Joe as a ‘combo guard.’ We just try to play him where he’s the most effective.”

Regardless of the various starting combinations Dickey plays, the offense (which is 7th in the nation as of this writing with an average of 78.1 points per game) hasn’t been the problem during his tenure. That would be the defense, which has allowed a not so hot 73.3 points per game. When asked about the defense, or lack thereof, and how to improve it, Dickey said, “That’s a very good question and something that I do think we’ve improved but we’ve got to get a lot better there. I think with defense a lot of it is just toughness. We’ve improved our rebounding (38.7 per game and a plus 3.2 rebounding margin) this year and it’s something we need to be more consistent on. We play well on defense at times and sometimes we’ve played well for a half, but we’ve got to get to the point where it’s consistent night in and night out for a full 40 minutes.”

Dickey on playing man defense versus zone, “We’ve played both this season. We played some zone early on but not as much of it. We like man-to-man but you’ve got to incorporate the different zones into your scheme and we’re going to continue to do that.” I especially liked how Dickey had the Cougars switching from man to a 2-3 zone on seemingly every other possession late in the game versus George Mason. I asked Coach which is more difficult, fundamental wise, to play “For a young team it’s probably a little more difficult to play man.” As for pressing (full or three quarter court) which I personally hope to see a lot more of next season as pressure forces turnovers which leads to easy fast break opportunities, Dickey states, “We pressed quite a bit this year and that’s something that we’ll continue to do to certainly take advantage of our quickness and speed on our team as well as the depth.”

In discussing depth, only one senior departs (post man Leon Gibson who will be missed as he does the dirty work in terms of interior defense and rebounding and doesn’t ask to be involved in the offense) while everyone else returns – leading to the kind of depth needed in order to press more for the 2013-14 season. Recruiting wise, Dickey said two scholarships are available as only 12 men were on scholarship this past season, and Gibson’s leaving is the additional scholarship. The Cougars head man could not talk about Danrad Knowles but from my “sources” he should be on campus this summer and will be on the team this coming season. “Chicken” was ranked as the 15th best power forward by ESPN recruiting and at 6-foot-9, has the versatility to become a better wing with his quickness. He could be labeled as a ‘stretch 4’ because of his shooting ability but at only 190 pounds (at his last listing) he definitely needs to hit the weight room, but he's a very good athlete with a ton of long term potential.

More of Dickey on the team’s depth and what everyone needs to do to improve heading into next season, “We’ve got some guys to build around. LaRon Barnes is a guy we think is really going to blossom as soon as we get healthy. J.J. Richardson (who at 6’8 245 pounds has the kind of physicality needed in order to compete in the new conference) needs to get healthy as well (he only played in 19 games this season due to foot issues after transferring from Pittsburgh). We need to get Stiggers to work on his mid range game and everyone needs to get better from the free throw line so we’ve got some good guys coming back that have a lot of skill and we just need to make sure that we all have good off-seasons and improve in the areas that will help each individual and help the entire team as well.”

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