Though the season didn’t end the way the coaching staff, players or fans envisioned with 81-62 and 72 to 69 losses to Georgia Tech and Tulane in the NIT and American Athletic Conference post season tournaments respectively, Sampson has the team more than on the way to becoming a post-season presence in just his second season along Cullen Boulevard.
Some of the highlights of the season in which they were picked to finish seventh in conference in the AAC media pre-season poll; the 12th best turnaround in the NCAA regular season, improving from 13 wins (19 defeats) last season to 22 victories this year (to only 10 losses), finishing the regular season tied for third place, winning 12 of 18 conference games including defeating each team in league play at least once. The 12 conference wins was the most since the 89-90 squad went 13-3 in Southwest Conference action.
How did they accomplish such feats, considering they had SEVEN newcomers to start the season? “They key to the success of our season was we had a lot of good players sacrifice themselves for the team,” the second year head coach told me via phone.
“We led the league in scoring because they bought into the system we put in,” Sampson continues. “The ball movement, the pace of play, our spacing. This was a fun team to coach. We had a good season and I really enjoyed coaching them. Like every year we had some rocky moments, but that’s to be expected. In football you play 11 games, 12 including a bowl game. We get to play at least 30 times. When you’re competing that many times over the course of the year you’re going to have some bumps in the road and you’re going to have some great moments but that’s to be expected when you’re building a program.”
Sampson’s favorite moments include, “The LSU game, which was still a good team when we played them back in December, playing in front of a packed house was a great experience for our kids. Beating SMU, Memphis, Tulsa and Cincinnati at home. Winning at UConn and Temple. We had so many great moments. The key was we had a bunch of kids who believed in each other and believed in our system and went out and executed.”
The best players were arguably, Devonta Pollard and Damyean Dotson, who were named all-conference second team and honorable mention respectively. Pollard averaged 14 points-per-game and 5.7 rebounds-per-contest and was the team’s only consistent big man playing at the “4” and sometimes “5” in certain matchups. Listed at 6-feet-8 inches tall and weighing in at 200 pounds, the senior’s strength offensively was taking his opponent out on the perimeter, “out-quicking” him to the hoop which set up his midrange game, which could be deadly as it was against Memphis (Feb 10 in a 98-90 win at the Hof) in which he scored a career high 34 points on an assortment of midrange jumpers (connecting on 14-of-24 field goals). That midrange game set up jab steps for quick drives to the hoop (helping him get to the free throw line 8 times, connecting on 6 of them against the Tigers).
Pollard could be cold however, and when he was the team usually lost; as they did in the AAC tourney in a disappointing loss against Tulane by the score of 72-69 in which Devonta scored only 11 points (on 4-of-13 shooting). The Porterville, Mississippi native finished his career off on a high note however, scoring 21 points (on 10-of-17 shooting) in the loss at Georgia Tech.
Coach Sampson reflecting on Pollard and what he meant to the team leadership wise, “He was our best player and in my opinion should have been first team all-conference. In a year in which this was a great conference with four teams getting into the tourney and five had SMU qualified, we were right there and he was a big reason why.”
“The bigger the game the bigger he played. He scored for us. He rebounded for us. He singlehandedly carried us against Memphis. Some of the things he did on the road at UConn, at Temple, on down the list. Last year was kind of a wash for him due to the off the court things he had to deal with but he came back a new man; more mature, his leadership, his willingness to buy into the team.”
“The thing I love about Devonta is that he’s a caring soul. He really cares about people. I’m really going to miss him and LeRon. They were unbelievable leaders in this program and we’re going to have to find out who’s going to step into their spots.”
The LeRon in which Sampson was referring to is LeRon Barnes. “Old Man River,” as the head coach likes to refer to him as, was the heart and soul of the team. The “glue” guy ever team needs to be successful. He often sacrificed his offense, throwing himself into team defense and rebounding as he averaged 5.2 per game (along with 6.1 ppg) from one of the wing spots (Sampson doesn’t differentiate between the “2” and “3” like in the NBA, instead calling them wings).
The head coach on the Stonewall, Louisiana native’s contributions, “LeRon was a consummate. Not by his words, by nature he’s very quiet, but his consistency of effort and habits. The way he lived his life. He goes to class every day. He treats everybody with respect and he’s a great, great teammate. He’s a coach’s dream really.”
“He probably tailed off a little bit by the end of the year because of injuries; he just got beat up. There’s no one who needed to get the season over with more than LeRon did; he’s dealing with a thumb, plantar fasciitis, groin, back issues. It got to the point where he didn’t even practice anymore. He just played in games. His game may have gone down but he was still a great leader and teammate.”
“LeRon was a giver. In basketball you have givers and takers. If you have more takers than givers you have a basketball team that underachieves because they only care about themselves. LeRon was the ultimate giver because he cared about his teammates and he pulled for everybody. And everybody loved LeRon.”
Dotson (6’5, 210) averaged 13.9 points-per-game and led the team in rebounding with an average of 6.8 per from the other wing spot. The former Oregon Duck was also the best shooter on the club, shooting over 50-percent from the field, 36-percent from “3” and over 83-percent from the line.
Sampson on “Dot’s” contributions this season, “He should have been second team all-conference in my opinion with the season he had. But he’s just a tough competitor. He doesn’t have a lot of bad days. He’s pretty much on-point every day. He’s improved his shot selection and played within himself. He’s become a very dependable three point shooter and made himself into a good rebounder. I’m impressed with the way he’s embraced rebounding and coaching. He’s all about winning and he’s set himself up for a nice senior season.”
That last quote caught my ear, putting to rest the rumors of Dotson potentially turning pro.
Defense and rebounding was both a team strength and weakness. While allowing 69.2 points-per-game, they held opponents to barely 42-percent from the field (95th out of 346 Division 1 teams) and an outstanding 30-percent from the three-point line (EIGHTH nationally), though ironically they lost the game to Tulane on a last second 3-pointer thus ending any hopes of an NCAA bid.
Where they were dominated though was in the paint as they often played with an undersized front line, with centers Kyle Meyer (6’10, 225, Jr.) and Bertrand “Bert” Nkali (6’8, 240, Jr.) averaging only 13.9 and 9 minutes-per-game respectively. Both first year players averaged only 3.8 points and 4.9 rebounds-per-game combined, and were little more than just bodies to occupy space.
While the effort may have been there, Sampson is expecting better seasons next year from his ‘5’s,’ “Kyle did some good things this year but we need more. He needs to rebound better. He needs to play like a senior. Bert’s got to figure out that when he gets an offensive rebound, what can he do to enhance his positioning? He needs to get the ball to the rim and finish against length. He needs to play more aggressively on defense as well. Both he and Kyle can have much better years.”
Another big Sampson mentioned who needs to step up his game was Xavier Dupree (6’9, 210, Jr.), who averaged 1.4 points and 1.7 rebounds in almost 8 minutes per game, while playing in 21 games.
“X is our best outside shooting big but it’s all about his motor. He can’t depend on me to stick his key in his ignition and start it for him. He has to do that himself. When he decides that’s important to him and he wants to be a factor in this program he will because he has the ability.”
Danrad Knowles (6’10, 200, Jr.), a top 100 ranked recruit by all of the major services back in 2012, averaged just 6 points and 4 boards in 17 minutes-per-game with just 12 starts in 32 total games played, down from 10 and 6 in 2014-15 while starting 32 games. With “Chicken,” as has been the case for his entire career, it’s all about his effort according to Sampson,
“We preach to Chicken everyday about being more competitive, playing with more fire, you know? Play like your hair is on fire. He just needs to be more consistent.”
When playing with a smaller lineup, with Pollard and Knowles in the front court, the Coogs averaged almost 13 offensive rebounds per game which was good for 44th nationally. Unfortunately they gave up too many offensive rebounds to the opponent due mainly to lack of size, allowing just 15 less than which they caromed off the boards (410 to 395).
Their defense also fluctuated with their offense, traits of a younger team. When their offense flowed, the effort and enthusiasm was great on the defensive end, especially when pressing as they averaged 5.9 steals-per-game and forced 12.4 turnovers-per-game from their opponents. This would get them in their transition game in which they anywhere from 12 to 18 points-per-game when the defense played efficiently. Players such as Pollard, Barnes and Dotson also had quick hands and were good at taking charges. Knowles averaged almost a block per game with 28 total in 32 games while Pollard led the club with 29 steals in 32 games as well, while also adding 20 blocks.
Offensively, the Coogs averaged 77.4 points-per-contest (70th), shooting 46-percent from the field, 35 from the 3-point line and almost 71-percent from the line, but missed plenty from the charity stripe down the stretch in shooting less than 64-percent in 7 of the 10 losses. When the offense was rolling, the ball movement was a beautiful thing to watch in Sampson’s open post offense that emphasizes spreading the ball for driving lanes which create layups or open perimeter shots via the assist (12.8 per game). The offense struggled when the ball slowed down with the team taking the shot clock down below ten seconds, or with certain players going one-on-one, stifling ball movement. The Coogs also struggled against bigger teams that were able to take away their advantage on the offensive glass.
Sampson touched on his team’s offense and how it can improve via their defensive play, “You improve by being a better defensive team and rebounding, which triggers the break. One of the weaknesses of our team was rebounding, no doubt. Our best rebounders were Dot, Barnes and Pollard and we lose two of those three. Who’s going to rebound for us now? Another year of playing at this level with Kyle and Bert, Chicken and X, Dot, Rob Gray Jr. (6’2, 185, So.) and our points; collectively we can be a better rebounding team next year because we’ll have some experience. Nothing will jump up and surprise these guys next year. We’ve got some guys who have been through the wars. Last year almost all of these guys hadn’t played at this level, at least on our team. So improving our ‘pace of play’ includes getting stops, finishing possessions with defensive rebounds and get it out and run.”
Speaking of Gray, the Howard JC transfer led the team (and second in the American) in scoring, averaging 16 per game despite coming off the bench most of the season. In his role as the team sparkplug, Gray was fearless in throwing his body into the action with a quick first step that often resulted in either a midrange floater or a trip to the free throw line. He was benched one game for his shot selection earlier in the season, and missed five others with an ankle sprain, but his scoring is going to be needed next season.
Sampson on that benching in that close 77-73 loss at SMU on January 19th, “Rob has to learn to become a better team player. He’s a very talented offensive player and in his mind there are very few shots he can’t make. Sometimes you have to give your more talented players more rope than others but you can’t give them rope to the point where they are playing outside the team scope and that’s something we really had to work at.”
“That’s the reason why I had to hold him out of a game,” Sampson admits of the SMU contest, “the reason why he didn’t start was because he wanted to go outside of our team play and as a coach you have to do what’s best for the team. But he did make a lot of strides this year. I think of all the great games he had, and even the struggles, was just a part of the process. Don’t forget, even though he was at Howard for two seasons prior, he was just a sophomore this past season, not a junior or senior. Rob’s going to be a big part of our future. He’s got to work on his shot selection and he’s got to get better in some other areas of his game; he can be a better rebounder. He’s capable of leading the league in steals. He can be a much better assist guy. He’s got to become a better ‘ball mover’ and then he’s got to eliminate his defensive mistakes. I have a lot of things for him to work on but he’s a talented enough player that he can do all of those things and be an even better player for us next year.”
The quarterbacks of the team were the point guard duo of Galen Robinson Jr. (6’0, 190) and Ronnie Johnson (6’0, 180, RJr.). A year after winning the Guy V. Lewis Award as the city of Houston’s top high school basketball player as a member of the Westbury Christian Wildcats, Robinson was named as a member of the AAC All-Rookie team as he averaged 7.9 points and 3.4 assists in 24 minutes over 32 games (22 starts) in his first season.
Johnson averaged 9.4 points and nearly 3 assists himself in 22 minutes over 31 games (13 starts) as a nice change-up off the bench. Sampson said both will compete for the starting point guard spot again next season, “There are some guys that play better off the bench and some play better starting. We started Ronnie early in the year than Galen came on. Ronnie just needs to find his niche but we have a luxury in that we have two guys that are capable of starting.”
“Our team plays with great pace when Ronnie’s on the floor, but like Rob, he just has to learn better shot selection. Ronnie’s a fast point guard. When he’s good he’s really good. He’s had some outstanding games. We don’t win the UConn game without him (10 points and 7 assists in the 75-68 road win on February 28th). We just need more consistency from him. He needs to work on making his teammates better. Ronnie’s more of a scoring point guard while Galen’s more of a passer, but they both have the ability to get to the rim and finish.”
“Galen made the all-freshman team which was a big honor for him,” Sampson said of Robinson Jr., “There are a lot of really good freshmen in this league so he’s pleased with that award. What really impressed me the most about Galen was how he played against the best teams, at Cincinnati, at SMU, at Connecticut. He really developed as the season went on. He really rose up to the level of his competition. Coming out of a smaller high school we weren’t sure how he would react to the play at this level. He just needs to improve his consistency and maintain his intensity level and be ready to play every night. Next year he needs to be ready to play an entire season but for this year that was ok. You don’t see a lot of freshmen playing in the Final Four. Oklahoma, Syracuse, North Carolina, Villanova; those teams aren’t playing too many freshmen, they’re all upperclassmen. But the year Galen had was very encouraging. You can tell he’s going to be an outstanding player here for us for a long time.”
The head coach made sure to emphasize, “And the thing is they’re all back. Think about the future of this program. There aren’t many programs in the nation that have the depth we have in the backcourt with Rob and Dot, and Galen and Ronnie. This time last year none of those guys had played a game for Houston. They were all new and had their trials and tribulations as first year players but now they’re coming back and that’s part of the growth of this program.”
“The first year here we had to put a team together. This year we put a team together that could compete. Next year our goal is to get to the NCAA tournament, but you don’t do that starting over each year. We started over our first year, and then we had to turn around and start over again this year. Now we have some continuity coming back so we’re really excited about that.”
As for the future of the program, Sampson gushed about the three new additions to the 2016-17 squad; Valentine Sangoyomi (6’10, 250, Jr.) and Armoni Brooks (6’4, 180, Fr.) both signed in the 2015 Fall signing period, along with Chris Harris (6’10, 200), who took the year off to focus on his academics. The left handed athlete won the District 20-5A Defensive Player of the Year in 2014-15 at Madison.
Hopefully the Coogs have better luck with this Valentine than they did the last one (Izundu who transferred to Washington State after two subpar seasons of unfulfilled promise, like the rest of the Dickey era) as Sangoyomi averaged 7.7 rebounds, 6.9 points and 1.1 blocks-per-game in 33 games (28 starts) at Northern Oklahoma college this past season. Sampson and his staff would gladly take those numbers next season.
“There are some great bigs in this country,” Sampson spoke of recruiting, “And they usually go to about 10 schools. The North Carolina’s, the Kansas’s, the Kentucky’s, the Duke’s. It’s the toughest position for us to recruit. For us to find somebody like that, well we usually don’t. But I like the bigs we have on our roster because they’re multiple. We just have to develop them, but I really like the length and size we have down low.”
Brooks meanwhile just scored 30 points in a recent Central Texas All-Star game after leading his Austin McNeil Mavericks to 24 wins before a first round defeat to Lake Travis. He was also named District 13-6A MVP, along with his teammate Victor Bailey Jr. Brooks. Brooks a silky smooth guard that can both score and handle the ball and Sampson said he could come in and compete right away and even has a chance to be the team’s best three point shooter.
In all, nine players from last year return including walk-on Wes VanBeck (6’2, 190, So.) who stepped up in different games over the course of the season as “Van Bieber” (as he was called by a teenager in China) averaged 3.4 points as the resident sharp shooter off the bench. Only Pollard, Barnes and Eric Weary Jr. (a combo guard who averaged 1.7 points in 19 games) graduate.
As for L.J. Rose (6’3, 200), who has played in only 21 games combined over the past two seasons (including two this year) due to foot issues, Sampson said a decision to apply for a medical redshirt still hadn’t been made yet. Coach said Rose and his family would make that decision and he would support it no matter what.
As for the off-season, Sampson said the team is in the middle of a dead period right now in terms of player contact, but on the Tuesday after the championship game (April 5th), the players get back into the gym for two hours per week per NCAA rules while school is still in session. Workouts will be broken down to individual position groups; with the point guards, wings, 4’s and 5’s all working out separately so “everyone gets a little more individual attention” as the head coach puts it.
Once final exams begin in May the team can’t meet on the court until the beginning of the first summer session on June 6th, in which the two hour per week rule goes back into effect, and lasts for 6 weeks until mid-July when the first summer session ends. This will be when the freshmen are allowed on the court as well. The team will then be allowed to work on the court from mid-July to August the 12th while in school for the second summer session.
Sampson said the most important thing about the off-season is the weight room, “We have an outstanding strength coach in Jason Russell. Our guys have been in the weight room since the end of the season. They need to keep developing their strength. Some of it will be weight gain, some added strength, others more flexibility and explosiveness. We need to continue getting our core strength stronger. For good teams and improving as players, the off-season begins in the weight room. Our brand new facility is magnificent. These kids now have a place to play 24/7.”