An Early Look Ahead to the 2016 Hoops Season

College basketball, much like that of college football, is a year round sport these days as Houston Cougars head basketball coach Kelvin Sampson explains, “There is no off-season for us. Basketball teams are made from October to March. Basketball players are made from March to October.”

Coogfans was lucky enough to sit down with the head man to speak on a number of topics heading into his second season. Last season the Coogs only won 13 games (while losing 19, including a 4-14 American Athletic Conference record), but finished up the season on a high note, winning four of the final five games. Wins and losses weren’t the most important thing to Sampson however.

A Change of Culture

When asking Sampson about expectations heading into last season and whether or not they were met based on effort alone considering the team finished the season with only seven scholarship athletes available, he replies, “we also didn’t expect to win  four of our final five games either. Obviously I’ve done this before (in taking over a program) so I think the most important thing we did this (past) year was establish a ‘change of culture,’ in which our kids understand how we do things. To describe a change of culture is a description in which we want our kids to behave off the court, what time they get to practice, going to class, how hard we compete in practice. Understanding the difference between playing hard versus competing, how do you prepare for practice? How do you prepare for games? As far as on the court, culture is the things you do to put yourself in position to win basketball games. That’s all part of your culture and we had to come in and establish a culture based on what we want to be known for. Good, bad or indifferent everyone’s going to be known for something, but what you want to be known for is your identity and we want to show our toughness, our competitiveness, our togetherness. You have to work at those things. They don’t just happen because a coach writes them on a board; ‘we’re gonna play together! We’re gonna be tough! We’re gonna be competitive! Ok let’s go!’ That’s not the way it works. You have a lot of kids that are ‘me, me, I, I’ guys. You have some kids who are meek or mild. You have some that might say the right thing but are very inconsistent with it. So we had all of that to start the season and we had to constantly take our hammer and hit that rock with it every day and though we were losing some games, we felt we were getting better. The losing games didn’t bother me. I’d much rather have a culture established this (past) year than have three or four more wins. At no point did I think we were going to win the conference championship or make the NCAA tournament. That’s not what this year was about. This year was about laying a foundation of which we could build from and that started with our culture, our identity and getting our kids to really buy in, so to me that’s why this was a successful year.”

Coach Sampson on his adjustment to coaching college basketball for the first time in six seasons (he was previously an assistant with both the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets after spending the previous 25 years as a head coach in the college ranks at Montana Tech, Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana), “Well I had coached 13 or 14 games in the NBA. I was associate head coach with the Rockets and when Kevin McHale unfortunately lost his daughter I think I coached the team for 10 or 12 games in that stretch and then when he lost his mom I can’t remember how many I coached again. So I’ve coached a few games as a head coach with the Rockets and then I was a head coach with the Milwaukee Bucks Summer League team so it’s not like I hadn’t coached over that time, but as far as college that was like brushing your teeth. There wasn’t a whole lot to get adjusted to for me. I loved every minute of it. We were 13-19 and it was a fantastic voyage with these kids. I got really close with this team because I appreciated where they started and where they ended up and to me that’s what coaching is all about. I’ve had teams that went to the Final 4, the Elite 8, won B12 championships. Those were great accomplishments for those teams but going 13-19, winning four in a row to end the season, everything’s relevant. That was a great accomplishment for this team and it may be more of an accomplishment for this team than for some of those other teams that won 30 games.” Those last few lines are what I admire most about Sampson, in that he always takes the spotlight off of himself and places it back on the team concept.

Sampson on expectations heading into the 2015-16 season and if contending for a conference championship falls into play or he just looks at the season on a game to game basis, “I don’t think in your second year in this league you’re going to go from 4 wins to 14 and winning the league. That may not be in the cards so I’m not going to talk to them about conference championships but I do think we can compete with all of the teams in this league because we got better. If you really break our past season down I think we were very competitive. I think in 9 of our last 10 games we had a lead at halftime. Our problem was the second half, especially the 12 to 6 minute mark with only 7 scholarship guys. That’s where our depth got us, if we got into any kind of foul trouble we were in trouble. But we led at Cincinnati, at Temple, Cincinnati at home, I forget all the teams but we were competitive this year. We had chances to beat a lot of them but I think we’re going to be a lot better this year. Our talent level has dramatically improved. Last year we finished the season with Jherrod Stiggers at point guard. I mean c’mon now,” he says laughing. “When Jherrod was our point guard that’s when I knew our guys had bought in to our culture. We were winning those games with our defense, effort and toughness. We taught Jherrod to where he only had to do two or three things and from there we just played. But this year we’re going to be a lot better. We’ve got some good young kids and we’ve got some veterans coming back. We’ll have depth so I like our team.”

Last season the Coogs averaged only 64.4 points per game, ranking them 250th nationally (out of 345 Division 1 teams), while allowing only 65.5, ranking them a decent 141st in that tough defense Sampson was earlier speaking about. With the depth and ‘bigs’ on the roster, Sampson said he plans on playing a lot less zone this season as opposed to having to play it more last year due to the lack of depth. With improved guard play, look for opposing point guards to be picked up further on the court (just past half court) and for hard hedges on pick and rolls. The initial effort on defense was better than average. It was just finishing off the defensive possession with a rebound or gathering the loose ball that was the problem which again, was due to lack of the necessary bigs. Though their team average of 35.3 rebounds per game ranked them an above average 125th, the Coogs rebound margin of minus-1 ranked them 234th.

Pace and Space

Sampson on the evolution of his offense, “we want to play fast and we’re recruiting to that type of system. With Galen Robinson (6’0, 170, Fr.), Ronnie Johnson (6’0, 180, Jr.) and Rob Gray (6’2, 190, So.) we have three guards that we feel can play with great pace. Our offensive philosophy is real simple; pace and space. We want to stretch the defense out to the corners and we want our bigs to get to the front of the rim. We’re never going to play two post guys (in the traditional sense). We’re always going to play with a post (center or ‘5’) and our ‘4’ man (power forward traditionally speaking) is more like a Devonta Pollard (6’8, 210, Sr.) or ‘Chicken’ Knowles (6’11, 190, Jr.). I felt bad for Chicken last year. He played out of position all year, a lot of those nights he was banging in there with those 250 pound guys and he weighs 192, but he’ll go back to his normal position of a ‘4’ man and he and Devonta will split that position. Kyle Myer (6’10, 230, Jr.) will start for us at the ‘5’ next year and then we have Bert (Bertrand Nkali – 6’8, 225, R-Jr.) who redshirted this year from a groin injury and I like our freshman coming in, Chris Harris (6’10, 210), but we’re going to get him in the weight room and get him up to speed. So overall I think we’ve really improved our length and size. I like our 4 with Devonta and Chicken. I LOVE our ‘3’ with Damyean Dotson (6’5, 210, Jr.) and Leron Barnes (6’5, 195, Sr.) and then our two guard spots. We’re excited about our roster. We think we have great depth at the point guard position. With Jherrod leaving we went out and got Rob Gray, who we were lucky to get, and then L.J. Rose (6’3, 200, Sr.) is an X-factor because he’s had three fractures of the one foot so we’re not sure where he fits in right now only because of his injury. It’s a mystery. We don’t know how he’s going to be able to come back from that.”

One player Coach Sampson neglected to mention (and I failed to bring up) was Parris Junior College transfer Xavier Dupree (6’9, 210, Jr.) who signed during the fall signing period last year and adds even more depth to the front line, as Sampson commented via, “Xavier is a very intriguing player. He is long and rebounds his position well. He shoots the three and has a lot of potential. Xavier brings length, athleticism, rebounding and perimeter shooting to our program and can play multiple positions. He can play either spot up front and will be a tough matchup for our opponents." The last scholarship athlete Sampson failed to mention was Eric Weary Jr. (6’0, 210, Sr.), who appears to be out of the guard rotation, but may be able to work himself back into it depending on what happens to Rose. Sampson won’t have a traditional ‘2’ guard but two guards who are interchangeable who can initiate the offense and score. Scoring wise, though Pollard is the only returning starter to average in double figures last season (14.2 points per game), look for Chicken to improve his 9.9 average with a return to a less taxing physical position while being able to play more on the perimeter this season in order to give guards room to penetrate. Rose averaged 9.8 in 19 games and both Gray and Dotson are both known scorers (Gray averaged 18.2 last season at Howard JC with the Houston native Dotson averaging 11.4 and 9.4 during his two seasons at Oregon). Johnson is yet another intriguing athlete as the transfer from Purdue averaged 10.5 points per game over his first two seasons with the Boilermakers, starting in 59 of 66 games.

If Pollard and Knowles can average the 6.4 and 5.6 rebounds per game the duo did last season while splitting the duties at the 4 this year, both Myer and Nkali will have less of a load at the 5. And though underweight, another X-factor could be in how quickly Harris develops along the front line as he’s an ultra-quick athlete with tons of potential. The “glue guy” is Barnes who averaged 7.4 points per game and tied Pollard for the team lead with 6.4 boards per game. He was also second in both blocks (22) and steals (26) to only Chicken (42) and Pollard (39) respectively. Every successful team needs a selfless player like Barnes, who reminds me of former Houston Rocket Mario Ellie.

Off-season workouts

Sampson stated, “The day after the national championship is the day we begin getting ready for the next season. That Tuesday (April the 7th), we’re allowed to be on the court with our players 2 hours per week through final exams for the spring semester. We break that down to 3 days per week in which we go 40 minutes per day. For the first 4 workouts we’re allowed to do full team workouts with the month of April being dedicated to individual work. Now our strength and conditioning staff gets them 5 hours per week where we go at 7AM, 4 days per week. We go Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 7 to 8:15AM in the weight room where we’re really ramping up everything we do. We’ve been working on explosion, acceleration, getting bigger, stronger, faster and quicker. We measure their body fat. We measure their body weight and then we get them on this strength program where we’re trying to gain muscle mass not just weight. We gain muscle mass by lowering the body fat while increasing the body weight so we have a detailed plan on how to make our players better during this portion of the season. Once Final exams get here (May the 6th) we can’t coach our players again until Summer school gets here. So the first summer session starts June 1st, in which our entire team will be enrolled in so we can get back on the 2 hours per week rule in which we can do individual or team workouts. So Galen Robinson, Rob Gray, Damyean Dotson, Kyle Myer, Xavier Dupree and Chris Harris will enroll in Summer school along with our returning players and they’ll all go through the first summer session which will be until July 5th. During this time again we’ll have them 2 hours per week which we’ll do 3, 40 minute sessions every week just on basketball where we can coach them.

Team Bonding

Every four years a team is allowed to travel internationally and this year Sampson is taking his men to Beijing, China. The added bonus, according to the head coach is, “we’re able to have 10 practices prior to us departing for this trip. So basically we’re going to get a head start on next season, starting the second summer session which begins on July the 8th and goes through August the 10th. Now starting July 27th we’ll have our 10 full practices where we can have the entire team doing whatever we want to do in getting ready for next season and in the short term getting ready for this China trip. So we’re going to fly into Beijing on August the 11th and we’ll be there until the 20th. While we’re over there we’re going to play 4 games before getting back to the mainland on the 20th as school starts for the Fall session on August the 24th.” Sampson mentioned trying to get Mao Ying to visit with the team but those plans aren’t finalized as of this writing.

Basketball Development Center

Coach Sampson talked about the practice facility, or the ‘basketball development center’ as he dubbed it and how it should be finished (he’s hoping) just before the start of the season, “Well construction started last September and it’s on target to be done sometime in the Fall. I don’t like dates. I don’t like someone to tell me it’s going to be done on such and such date because things out of our control happen. I just know we’re scheduled to play an exhibition game the first week of November and if we can be in that facility sometime in October that would be great.”

Sampson also talks about renovating Hofheinz Pavilion versus building a new arena and the new ‘Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics,’ Hunter Yurachek; “I don’t think we’re going to build a new arena. What we’re going to do is a massive renovation of Hofheinz.” When asked if seats need to be added he said abruptly, “Oh we don’t need to add seats. Oh no. What we need to do is add butts in the seats (laughing). And every one of those seats needs to be replaced. Our building has great history, has great tradition, but in today’s recruiting world every one of those seats needs to be replaced and everything in there needs to be completely redone and I know President (Renu) Khator, Chairman Tilman Fertitta and our AD, Hunter Yurachek, are completely on board with this renovation project so I feel good about the direction our program is heading. Now about Yurachek; we hired the right guy. We needed a solid stable AD who’s a man of great integrity, who’s a great leader and has a vision and I couldn’t be more thrilled with Hunter.”

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