Heading into a stretch of 15 conference games and the AAC post season tournament (and perhaps post season play after that), head coach Kelvin Sampson was gracious enough to speak with me via a phone interview on Monday. With seven new players added to the team this season, Coach Sampson knew it would take a while to find his team’s identity while mixing and matching lineups during the non-conference portion of the schedule, “With so many new guys it takes a while to mesh or I guess the term you could use is calibrate. It’s taken us awhile to get to learn how to play together, especially at point guard. Until you get that position settled I don’t know if you can move forward with your team. Last year the point guard position was always in flux because of injuries. We had L.J. (Rose) start only 19 games because of injury. We just never had a chance to get that position settled whereas this year we knew we had point guard play coming in. We just had to figure out how to use them since we had two good ones.”
“Then coming back (this year), we had some guys who played some major roles last year that we knew were not going to play major roles this year. Now we add Ronnie Johnson (6-feet, 180 pounds, RJr.), Rob Gray (6’2, 185, So.) and Damyean Dotson (6’5, 210, Jr.) in the backcourt with Kyle Meyer (6’10, 225, Jr.), Xavier Dupree (6’9, 210, Jr.) and Bert Nkali (6’8, 240, RJr.) in the frontcourt. Now it’s a matter of getting them to play well together which we’ve done for the most part.”
Sampson on the early portion of the season, “The team’s we’ve lost to, Grand Canyon (78-69 on December 21st in Las Vegas) and Rhode Island (67-57 December 8th in their first true road game). Rhode Island’s good. They lost at the buzzer to Providence who’s one of the top-10 teams in America. That shows you how good Rhode Island is. Now Grand Canyon was probably the surprise team. They have a chance to win their league. They may be the best team in the WAC (Western Athletic Conference). No one knows anything about them but that’s a good team.”
“The game that stands out to me was LSU,” Sampson says, “Not because we won it, but because we had over eight thousand fans in the stands. That’s the first time I’ve seen that arena (Hofheinz Pavilion) packed. It was a nationally televised game and we scored 105 points against a Power-5 team. It was a solid win but great for our fans to see us have that kind of success on a national stage.”
“Then starting conference play with two wins was great,” Sampson on his team’s recent 73-67 and 77-50 wins at South Florida and Temple last week, “You take road wins in this conference, stick them in your back pocket and move on. Anytime you win on the road in league play, those wins are worth their weight in gold to me.”
“So now we’re 12-2 and have 16 games left, nine at home and seven on the road and we’ve positioned ourselves to do some good things. But it’s like all things with young kids, I’ve been more worried about keeping their heads together and staying focused after winning more than after losing. You win games and people tend to overreact about your achievements. We got lucky in that Temple was coming off a huge win at Cincinnati and I just don’t think they were emotionally ready for us. It’s hard to get back on that horse after you win a game like that. It was the best performance we’ve had all year and now the challenge is to continue to play well.”
Weak non-conference schedule (ranked 350th by Pomeroy) withstanding, the strength of the team is their unselfish play on offense as they average 81.5 points-per-game this season, ranking them in the top-50 nationally (the NCAA website had not updated their site as of late Tuesday night) and second in the American, while shooting .472 percent from the field and an outstanding .718 percent from the free-throw line.
While the offense is going to be there with the talent Sampson has recruited in his short tenure (four players average between 11.9 and 18.6 points-per-game), the team seems to play better when they’re tuned in defensively. While switching from man-to-man while throwing in 2-3 and 3-2 zone looks while also showing full and half-court traps, the team is allowing only 66.7 points on average and more importantly, holding opponents to below 41-percent from the field (.409 to be exact which ranks them in the top-100 nationally). The defense helps the offense out by averaging 7 steals (with four players having between 13 and 18) and 4.4 blocks-per-game, which gets them into their transition game giving them easy baskets so they won’t be forced into scoring from half-court sets which Sampson does not want.
The team is also out-rebounding opponents by just over six per game (40.5 to 34.3) while averaging a robust 13.9 offensive rebounds per game (top-30 nationally), most coming on hustle plays, or running down long rebounds. Playing good defense and rebounding also helps to control the tempo of the game.
Sampson on his emphasis on rebounding during his post-game press conference after the Tulane game, via uhcougars.com, “We have our kids convinced that we aren’t going to beat many teams with our first shot. We are really a second or third-shot kind of team. We put a huge emphasis on offensive rebounding. Kyle Meyer had five offensive rebounds tonight, but we also keep track of this statistic called tips, where he may not get it but you tip it out or keep it alive with a tip. Another one of our little philosophies is that it takes two people to get an offensive rebound; one guy to keep it alive, and the other to go get it. We missed 36 shots, but we had 20 offensive rebounds. Another goal that we have is that we want to rebound 50 percent of our missed shots. If you do that, then that is outstanding. We’re third in the league in offensive rebounding right now, and we talked about this last night at our film session. The big key to this game (Tulane) is going to be our offensive rebounding. We saved a lot of possessions. We had 17 second-chance points. When we beat LSU here, we had 11 offensive rebounds at halftime, and we had 18 second-chance points at halftime in that game. That’s part of who we are; that’s part of our identity. Something we emphasize on a daily basis is offensive rebounding.”
Coach talked to me about his team’s defense and whether or not he’s satisfied with how they’re playing thus far on the season, “I’m never satisfied. If we were holding our opponents to 40 points-per-game and held them to 30-percent shooting I’d still say we had to get better. The thing I like about our defense is we’re getting better. That Temple team scored 77 points on the road at Cincinnati and we held them to 50 points in their own gym so I think that speaks to the improvement we’re making.”
“We have to continue to improve,” Sampson preaches, “continue to keep working at it. We have some high powered offenses in our league; SMU, Memphis, Temple, Cincinnati. The team that’s probably the most talented is Connecticut. There’s gonna be challenges. Connecticut finished fourth in our league and won a national championship (tied for third technically) so it’s all about continuing to take that sledge hammer and hitting that hammer every day.”
“We’re going to lose some games,” a laughing Sampson says, “But our focus has to be on things we can control like having a good practice today in our preparation for Tulane. That’s the focus. Attack each day with the passion and understanding of what our identity is and then go out on the court and play up to it.”
While playing predominately man-to-man, Sampson has relied on a 2-3 and 3-2 zone at times this season, “We don’t have big bodies to defend inside. What we are is long and athletic so a lot of times when we go zone we’re active and can cause problems but the key is rebounding. We got killed on the boards against South Florida but we overcame that by making them turn the ball over 20 times, scoring 29 points off those turnovers.”
“Then we beat Temple on the boards but they have good guard play. They lead the nation in turnover margin. They only turn it over eight times a game but we turned them over nine times in the first half alone. Our athleticism on defense will be a factor as long as we compete and play hard.”
Offensively, besides scoring in transition, the Coogs are at their best when being patient in the half-court game, swinging the ball from side to side which opens up lanes for penetration by the guards which inevitably leads to an open three-point shot or better yet, a ‘runner’ or ‘floater’ in the mid-range game. In their open-post offense in which the bigs will set screens at the top of the key while clearing the low post which allows lanes for penetrating guards, Coach Sampson rarely calls plays unless he wants a specific player to get a specific shot during a key moment of the game. His key is not to stifle ball movement by slowing down the tempo which is exactly what happens when his point guard has to look at him to call a play.
Sampson illustrates his point, “I want to give our kids freedom, but not everybody has the same freedom because everybody’s not a good shooter. Everybody has a role to play. Our team is full of role players and everyone’s role is different. Rob Gray’s a role player just like Kyle Meyer’s a role player. Now I will direct the ball to certain people depending on the time and situation of the game but I don’t want to slow the ball down. The faster we play the better we play. Temple wanted to slow that game down and make it a ‘beat-you-up’ physical, half-court game where we wanted to play the game in the 80s or 90s. We’re not going to score 105 every night like we did against LSU but that’s the pace we want to play at.”
The head coach on the freedom his players have on shooting 3-pointers, where they’re connecting on .330 percent, “As long as they’re open I want them to shoot. The key to our 3-point shooting is to get into the paint whether it’s by pass or the dribble. We want to play inside-out.”
Point guard play
Sampson is very happy with the play of Galen Robinson Jr. (6’0, 190) who leads the team in assists, averaging 3.7 per game while scoring 6.9 points. The true freshman from Houston’s Westbury Christian would be shooting better than .442 percent from the field if not for his 7-for-24 mark from 3-point land. He also has a 3-to-1 turnover assist ratio (55 assists to only 18 turnovers).
Ronnie Johnson meanwhile is more the scorer, averaging 11.9 points-per-game behind a quick first step who can also hit the “J.” The only difference between the two, besides experience, may be their free throw percentage as Johnson hits more than 85-percent to Robinson’s 65.
Coach Sampson on the duo, “Galen is more of a true point. He’s sacrificed some of his game to make other players better. He’s a good passer and doesn’t turn the ball over much. The thing that impresses me the most is that he understands the game at a high level which bodes well for our future since he’s just a true freshman.”
“Now Ronnie has more of an edge to him, starting 59 games in the Big10 (at Purdue). His experience was a big factor Saturday (scoring 17 points). He’s been through the battles. They complement each other in that they have different strengths. Ronnie’s speeds a factor. Galen had 10 assists against Nichols State. It helps us because we can do different things with them.”
Sampson doesn’t use NBA terms in describing the positions. He describes them in terms of point guards, wings and bigs. The team’s leading scorer is Rob Gray Jr., who leads the American averaging 18.6 points-per-game behind a lightning quick first step that allows him to get to the rack almost whenever he wants. Gray is great in creating his own shot off the dribble and has steadily improved his perimeter game, shooting .467 percent from the field.
According to Sampson, shot selection from Gray is the key, “Earlier in the year he was forcing some shots so we had to sit him down and explain shot selection to him. We want guys who can score, no doubt, but not outside what we’re trying to do offensively and Rob and the rest of the guys have done a great job at adjusting to that.”
As far as his overall game, Sampson on the transfer from Howard JC who would have signed with Tennessee if not for a sudden coaching change, “Rob’s a talented kid. He can score but he’s also good at creating. He had 23 points but he also had 6 assists against Temple and that’s where he’s gotten a lot better.”
Damyean Dotson has become the silent assassin, averaging 12.1 points-per-game while connecting on .346 percent of his 3-point shots, “Dot’s really developed his 3-point shot and he’s our leading rebounders (7.2) and is a great defender.”
LeRon Barnes (6’5, 195, RSr.) epitomizes the toughness of this squad and is probably the best pound-for-pound rebounder in the nation as he averages 7.2 per game while averaging 5.7 points. He missed three of four games but returned at Temple and pulled down a game high 13 boards (followed by 14 against Tulane) as Sampson pointed out, “You could just see his value against Temple. When he’s on the floor defending and rebounding we’re a lot better. When you have two wings like Dot and LeRon it’s like having two big guys because they’re outstanding rebounders.”
Speaking of the big guys, Devonta Pollard (6’8, 200, Sr.) probably has the best all-around game on the squad as he’s the second leading scorer and rebounder with 14.1 and 6.1 per game respectively. The Porterville, Mississippi product is a lefty who has a deadly jump shot from 18-feet on in as he shoots .528 percent from the field. He also is athletic enough to take his man to the rim off the dribble and has great hands around the rim, unlike Kyle Meyer who needs to improve catching the ball around the basket which would lead to easy layups. Meyer averages only 3.3 points and 3 rebounds per game in only 14.5 minutes as his main job is to rebound, defend and set screens to get teammates open. Sampson mentioned Pollard as being one of the most improved players from day one of pre-season practices to today, saying he’s “a lot more efficient than last year.”
Danrad “Chicken” Knowles (6’10, 200, RJr.) is probably the most perplexing player on the roster. An ultra-athletic big who has the skills to shoot the 3, the ‘handles’ to take his man off the dribble and the leaping ability to sky for put-back dunks and block shots, the Houston product only averages 5.9 points and 3.1 rebounds per game in only 15.1 minutes as he’s often in foul trouble.
Sampson on whether he gets as frustrated at Chicken’s play as the fans do, “No,” he says emphatically, “I’ve been around him for a few years now. That’s who he is. He’s not a highly competitive, tough kid. Now when he plays with passion he’s pretty good but our team doesn’t revolve around what he does. We’re 12-2 right now with him playing that way. I thought he played really well in the second half against Temple but we have depth. Last year we had no depth so no matter how good or bad he played he had to play every minute almost. This year we have depth so when he’s playing good I’ll leave him in. If not, Xavier Dupree (1.8 points and 2.3 boards in 10.3 minutes) has had his moments. Kyle Meyer has had his moments. Obviously Devonta is our main piece up front, but we have lots of guys who can help us win a game and that’s the strength of our team; the depth.
After coming off the bench for the first eight games of the season, Gray has started six of the past seven games and will probably start for the foreseeable future along with Robinson at the point with Dotson at the other wing. The two starting bigs will continue to be Pollard and Meyer according to Sampson, “By starting Galen and Meyer it makes us deeper because now we get better when we go to the bench. Right now we have Ronnie Johnson, LeRon Barnes, Chicken and Xavier. Just think about those four guys contributions and that’s our bench. Those four guys were huge factors winning both those road games (at South Florida and Temple). And the thing is we haven’t played our best basketball yet. We’ve had a game here or there where we played great like we did against Temple but no team plays like that every night. That’s why North Carolina loses to Northern Iowa then turns around and beats Maryland. That’s college basketball. Anyone can beat anyone in this sport. The thing that coaches search for is consistency. I want us to be consistently good. I don’t think any team can play like we did Saturday all the time but we can play with that same type of effort. If we have that same effort we’re going to be in just about every game and that’s all you can truly ask for as a coach.”
I asked coach if the expectations have changed based on the hot start to which he laughed and said, “My focus right now is watching game film on Tulane. Our assistant coaches do a great job in creating scouting reports. Each assistant has a responsibility of about five or six different teams they’re responsible for so we sit down every morning and talk about that first along with recruiting. I spent an hour last night on the phone recruiting, but once I get to the office it’s always about preparing for the next game. We’ve had a hard stretch here where we spent three days in Las Vegas to play two games. Then we had a two day break, had the 24th and 25th (of December) off. Get back at it on the 26th. Practice the 27th and 28th. Travel the 29th and play the 30th (at South Florida). Travel the 31st and practiced on the 1st. Played on the 2nd, get on a four hour flight after the game and get back into Houston late. Practice on the 3rd. Today’s the 4th. Play the 5th. Then we have a 7 day break, so we’ve had a tough stretch since the Grand Canyon game but we’re 4-0 in that stretch looking to be 5-0.
When asked about what he thought was the strength of the team, Sampson didn’t hesitate when he said, “our guards and overall depth. With Galen, Ronnie, Dot, Rob and LeRon you’ve got five high level basketball players and that’s not even mentioning Wes Van Beck (6’2, 190, So.) and Eric Weary (6’4, 210, Sr.). Those two are the reason we beat Wyoming in double-overtime. LeRon and Ronnie didn’t play against Nichols State and LeRon missed a few games there but we were fine because of our overall depth.
Playing for you
When asked about which player he thinks has been the most improved from the first day of pre-season practices through today, Sampson didn’t flinch when he said, “No one player in particular but rather the team. That’s the thing I love about this team; they’re a true team. They really get along well. They’ve grown together. There are so many things our fans should love about this team and I think that’s the next step for us; getting our fans on board and getting them excited about this team and getting them to come out and support them. These kids have worked too hard to be playing in front of empty seats. Every time we walk out onto a court it says Houston across our chest. We represent this city and it’s a good team. Don’t wait until we play UConn or one of the ‘sexy’ teams comes here. Come to see us play starting Tuesday night against Tulane. Come to see us. I get everyone wants to see Ben Simmons and LSU but we beat that team. Come watch these guys. Come watch Devonta and Galen, Xavier and Damyean. These guys are Houston kids. We have a team with a bunch of Houston kids here and that’s something to get excited about.”