Coming off a 13-19 season (4-14 in American Athletic Conference play), the Coogs have high expectations as they won four of their last five games last season including a game in the conference tournament while leading in many more games until simply wearing out in the second half due to depth issues. They ended the season playing with only seven scholarship players.
“We’re excited. I think this time of the year everyone’s tired of practicing against the same guys. We’ve had 23 practices so we’re looking forward to running our stuff and defending someone else,” second year head coach Kelvin Sampson (513-289 heading into his 27th season as a college basketball head coach) told me in a phone interview Monday afternoon.
Though Sampson loves practice as it’s the essence of coaching, he knows game action trumps how the team looks against one another, “I don’t think you can see true improvement until you put your stuff out there against someone else’s stuff and see where your mistakes are. How’s your rebounding, overall execution, making good decisions, turnovers, conversion from defense to offense and everything under that defensive umbrella; defensive rebounding, positioning, defensive execution on the pick-and-roll. We’re doing it against each other but now we need to do it against someone else. I think you’ll see limited improvement over the first month of the season. Everyone has to start somewhere and from there it’s all about improvement and getting better each game.”
“I don’t think we’re anywhere near as good as we need to be right now but I’m sure every coach in America says that,” Sampson said of his squad over the last month of practice, “By the time we get to December we should be a lot better. Then we get to January in conference season where we want to start hitting our stride a little bit and just keep improving and getting better the more we play.”
“These first few weeks and first few games are all about identifying mistakes, getting back to practice to work on them and getting right back out to the game and show improvement in those areas,” Sampson said of he and his coaching staff’s immediate goals, “I don’t know think you know how good your team is until you get some things exposed, and we need to be exposed right now.”
With more than half of the roster being newcomers (7 of 13 student-athletes), Coach Sampson said it would take time for the chemistry to gel, “We have so many new guys and guys that haven’t played in a game in almost 18 months. The China trip was good for so many reasons. It’s going to take those guys awhile to get their rhythm and get into a flow and gain confidence and that’s the big thing. Confidence in knowing what to do so they can do their jobs, and all that takes time.”
In my last interview with the head coach in September, Sampson mentioned how he wasn’t sure if he would start his best three guards because he wanted firepower coming off the bench. After a team scrimmage a few Saturday’s ago, the head coach said if he has to pick a starting lineup that day it would be former Purdue transfer Ronnie Johnson (6-feet, 180 pounds, RJr.) at the point, with Howard Junior College transfer Rob Gray Jr. (6’2, 185, So.) and former Oregon transfer Damyean Dotson (6’5, 210, Jr.) at the wings. Eastern Florida State JC transfer Kyle Meyer (6’10, 225, Jr.) and Devonta Pollard (6’8, 200, Sr.) would be the starters up front. Of the five only Pollard played regularly last season as he’s the leading returner in points (11.4 per game), steals (39 in 32 games) and is second in rebounds (6.4 average). Johnson sat out the year after transferring but did practice regularly with the team while Dotson attended Houston Community College after leaving Oregon. Gray and Meyer played at their respective junior colleges last season.
“I’d like to get to one (starting 5) I feel comfortable with but early in the season it’s going to be fluid because we have depth at every position,” Sampson said of projected starting lineups and rotations, “We ultimately have to see who plays well together. That (scrimmage) may not be our best starting lineup. The one thing about a starting lineup is the coach doesn’t choose it, the players will. We’ll find out what our best lineup is and that’s based off who’s playing well together. I’ll try to mix them up as much as I can early, plus with this team it really doesn’t matter who starts because over the course of a game we’re going to play so many different lineups so our rotations will be different. Last year we had only 7 or 8 guys to play in a game so we started the same lineup and we were very limited there. This year the strength of our team is our depth and that allows us to play a lot of different lineups.”
Having said all of that, everybody loves to discuss projected starting lineups and player rotations so I asked coach to give a brief scouting report on each player beginning at point guard, “Ronnie Johnson is probably more of a scoring point guard than he is a dyed in the wool, run your team, high assist, not many points kind of guy,” Sampson said of the Purdue transfer who averaged 10.6 points-per-game, 3.9 assists and 3.2 rebounds over 66 games (59 of those starts) during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons as a Boilermaker, “He can be a double figure scorer in this league but he has to improve his decision making, his passing and cut down on his turnovers.”
“Galen’s (Galen Robinson Jr. 6’0, 190, Fr.) more of a true point guard but he’s a freshman who has to find his niche,” Sampson said of 2015 Guy V. Lewis Award recipient as the city of Houston’s top high school player after leading Westbury Christian to a third straight Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools state championship this past spring, “If you look at his high school and AAU career he’s used to having the ball in his hands. Now he has to learn to play without the ball in his hands. That means in transition if someone else is bringing the ball down the court he’s got to learn to run to the corners, but he’s a fast learner and a winner so I have high expectations for both those kids.”
Sampson doesn’t differentiate between a “2” (shooting guard) or “3” (small forward) in NBA terminology as he just calls them wings, “Rob Gray was our leading scorer in China but we have to figure out what his best role is. His role may be coming off the bench. His role may be starting. I don’t know yet. He didn’t start any games in China, he came off the bench and played well in them all but in the first four or five games we’ll sort all of that out. That’s the advantage we have in non-conference games is we can figure things out before we get to conference play.”
“Rob’s forte is making plays off the tribble for himself and others,” Sampson said of Gray who averaged 18.2 points-per-game, 5.8 boards and 2.3 assists in 27 starts while leading Howard JC to a 24-8 record last season, “He’s a pretty good 3-point shooter but he’s more of a scorer than he is a shooter. He can make baskets. That’s what he does best.” He also averaged 1.33 steals-per-game, though Sampson said “he still has a long way to go defensively.”
“Dot is probably our best shooter,” Coach said of Damyean Dotson, “He’s our best 3-point shooter but he has to find other ways to help us win besides making shots. If all you can do is shoot then what are you going to do to help us win when your shot’s not falling? He’s really got to learn to play within the system. He played two years at Oregon (in which he averaged 10.4 points-per-game and 3.4 rebounds over 69 starts) then sat out the past 18 months so he’s searching for his rhythm, his identity; but you don’t find that at practice, you find that out during the games. That’s why I’m looking forward to this first month so we can get these things sorted out. But Dot’s our best shooter and a big, strong wing that we’re depending on to be solid this year.”
Every great team needs that glue guy. The guy who doesn’t have gaudy stats, and just does the dirty work that goes unnoticed to most. For Sampson that guy is LeRon Barnes (6’5, 195, Sr.), “he’s our best wing rebounder and defender (leading the team in rebounds per game last season with 6.4). He’s kind of a jack-of-all trades, master of none. He’s not really good at one area on offense other than rebounding (an average of 4.5 points-per-game over 83 career games). He’s an ok shooter, he’s an ok passer. He’s an ok ball handler. What he does is really rebound the ball well on the offensive boards and plays hard on defense. He’s really a coach’s dream and just a winner,” Sampson said of the player who most reminds me of former Houston Rocket great Mario Ellie.
With Johnson and Robinson competing for time at point (don’t worry we’ll get to L.J. later), and Gray, Dotson and Barnes competing for time at the two wing spots, Eric Weary Jr. (6’4, 210, Sr.) and Wes Van Beck (6’2, 190, So.) add depth but will probably only get spot minutes or will play in situational instances, “Eric Weary will provide depth in the backcourt and is one of our better defensive rebounders which he has a knack for (as he averaged 3.5 boards last season). He’s one of those guys that it doesn’t matter how many minutes he gets, he’ll come into the game and help you do something to win whether that’s making a corner 3 or getting a big defensive rebound and getting out on the break and finishing,” Sampson said of Weary who averaged 5.6 points last season in 18 minutes-per-game.
“Wes Van Beck does a lot of good things and is probably our best pure shooter along with Dot,” Sampson said of the walk-on who scored 10 points and had 7 rebounds and 3 assists in a 72-54 win versus East Carolina last year to close out the regular season, “When we’re facing zones and struggling he’s always a threat to come in and make a shot.”
After averaging 11.4 points, 6.4 boards and 1.1 assists and steals last season after transferring from East Mississippi Community College, Devonta Pollard is according to Sampson, “our best returning player. He always has to be in attack mode for us. He’s a left hander that can go left or right and can use either hand around the rim effectively. We want him to get to the free throw line (where he shot 73-percent last season) a lot by attacking the basket. He has to be a leader for us on defense and has to rebound his position well.” Pollard is a former 5-star prospect who led his Kemper County (Mississippi) High School squad to the 2012 3A state championship by averaging 23.8 points, 15.7 rebounds and 5.1 blocks-per-game.
Danrad “Chicken” Knowles (6’10, 200, RJr.) also led his team to a 2012 state title as a member of the HCYA Warriors. After choosing UH over schools such as Baylor, Arkansas and Louisville, the 4-star recruit sat out his true freshman season. Over the past two seasons he’s averaged 8.5 points and just about 5 rebounds-per-game as he’s had to play out of position at center a lot due to lack of bodies. He needs to improve his consistency according to Sampson, “Though he’s improved in all areas, he’s not really good at anything. But he’s a 6’10 kid that you never know when he’s going to make two or three 3’s, give you double digits rebounds or block a few shots. Everything is tied to his passion, his enthusiasm and how hard he plays. When he competes he’s going to help us. When he doesn’t then he’s not going to play much. It’s as simple as that.”
Chicken won’t have to worry about playing down low against 240 plus pound grown men this season, though Sampson did mention him getting stronger, if not adding more muscle mass due to hereditary, “His genetics won’t allow him to gain weight. His dad is almost 50 years old and weighs 180 pounds and he’s 6-foot-6.” The bruising down low will be left up to Kyle Meyer and Bertrand “Bert” Nkali (6’8, 240, RJr.), “Kyle’s another guy searching for his niche at a new school in a new offense with a new team. We have a lot of guys like that so it’s going to take time. Kyle’s our most skilled post guy but he’s got to figure out what is it that I can do to help our team win? Is it making a 3 occasionally? Is it defensive rebounding? Be in the right position on defense? He certainly has the ability to help us,” Sampson said of the Meyer who averaged 15 points and 8.4 boards-per-game last season at Eastern Florida State College after beginning his college career at Iowa. Meyer is a deft passer from the high post and can shoot free throws. He was a four year starter for Atlanta, Georgia’s Northview High School where he averaged 18.2 points and 12.9 rebounds for a team that finished fourth in state during the 2012 season.
Bert Nkali had to sit out last year after transferring from Lee JC when he tore a groin and had to have a sports hernia surgery, “He’s a big, strong tough guy who’s our best rebounder,” according to Sampson, “He’s limited offensively because he doesn’t have good hands but he’s going to help us this year because he’s got something he’s really good at; he can rebound the ball and that’s something we need him to do. He’s a hard worker and has a great attitude and he’s going to be important for us this year.”
Sampson concluded talking about his roster with injury news; Parris JC transfer Xavier Dupree (6’9, 210, Jr.) and L.J. Rose (6’3, 200, Sr.) haven’t practiced much because of injuries, “Xavier was really making strides but he’s been out for about two weeks with a knee problem and may end up having to get it scoped, which would put him out at least another month. L.J. had a stress reaction on one of the bones he broke so they put him back in a boot and I’m not sure when he’ll be back. Maybe by Christmas.”
As far as style of play, Sampson wants to play fast. In his first season the team only averaged 64.4 points-per-game (ranking them 250th out of 345 Division 1 teams), while shooting 39-percent from the field (325th) and 32-percent from 3 (269th). You can’t play fast if you don’t have the ball which is about possessions. The head coach in his own words on what he’s looking for from his team offensively, “We want to play at a fast tempo. Spacing on the floor is important for us. Our pace is important. Our passing is important. We want to move the ball to get quality shots. We have to convince these guys to pass up ok shots for good shots, to pass up good shots for great shots. The way you do that is to move the ball. I don’t like guys that are ball stoppers. I like guys that are ball movers. I think the faster you play it’s more imperative that you move the ball well.”
Defensively they allowed 65.5 points-per-game last season. While the initial defensive effort wasn’t bad, it seemed as if they could never complete a defensive stand with a rebound as they allowed their opponents to corral 36.3 (11.5 on the offensive glass) while gaining 35.3 themselves. Their minus-1 rebounding margin ranked them 234th nationally. “We want to be a team that doesn’t beat ourselves,” Sampson says of his defensive philosophy, “You’re not going to stop a lot of offenses in this league but we want them to have to beat us instead of us beating ourselves. By that I mean KNOW your job and DO your job. Be in the right spot. If you’re supposed to be in a help position, get there. If you’re supposed to help the helper, then get there. And when that shot goes up, I want 5 guys attacking the boards and get to the conversion from defense to offense as quick as you can and score.”
As far as defensive pressure, which was practically nonexistent last year due, again, to the lack of depth, “We’ll pick up full court man-to-man but sometimes we’ll go trap. Sometimes we’ll go into a zone press. Sometimes it’ll be man-press but we’re going to pressure you one way or the other,” Sampson said of the various types of pressure he’ll want his team to employ. The Coogs only averaged 5.8 steals while forcing 12.9 turnovers-per-game. Their -.4 turnover margin ranked them 207thh but with athletic wings such as Gray and Dotson added to the mix along with Barnes steady defensive play this area should improve this season.
With a fun and exciting style of play, Sampson fully expects the fans to embrace this team. As to why the Houston sports fan, many of whom may be sitting on the fence, should get on out to Hofheinz Pavilion to watch the team play? I’ll let coach sum it up, “Number one, it’s THEIR school. This is THEIR university. We’re the University of HOUSTON. I get it. Most fans want you to win before they come out to watch, so I understand that fully. But I think we’re going to win this year. We’re going to be much improved over last year and we’re going to get better as the year goes on. This team’s going to scrap and fight and claw and that’s going to be our identity; how hard we play. How hard we compete. We have good enough athletes to where we can play quickly and fast and play a style that’s going to be aesthetically pleasing to the fans.”