Tom Penders talks about the '07-'08 Cougars

"The next step for our program is to reach the NCAA tournament. If we get there, we'll set goals for the tournament. We've had three full recruiting classes and I feel that we have dramatically improved the talent level here." - UH Coach Tom Penders

JS - What are the remaining missing pieces for the Coogs to be competitive in the Top 25 and challenge for the Sweet 16?
TP - I'm not sure what the Top 25 really is or who or what determines who is a Top 25 team. I've always coached to get the most out of my players. It's always a work in progress. Polls mean nothing to me and I rarely ever mention them to my players. The next step for our program is to reach the NCAA tournament. If we get there, we'll set goals for the tournament. We've had three full recruiting classes and I feel that we have dramatically improved the talent level here. By winning 57 games over the past three years and recording three straight winning seasons, it allows us to get closely involved with better prospects. Last season we had tremendous national exposure on television and that has a great effect on recruiting. I never pay attention to recruiting ratings. I feel that we have some really talented players in this year's class. Time will tell just how good a class is. Scouting service ratings are often way off the mark. We try to upgrade at every position from year to year. This year we have five seniors and we hope to bring in at least two guards and three forwards. We hope to sign at least three during the early signing period this November. The season will tell us what we need to sign in the spring. We might have that Top 25 team right now but there are about 100 schools that feel the same way right now. There are around 340 Division 1 schools now in the sport of men's basketball and at least 200 of these schools are budgeted for NCAA bids. New improved facilities are sprouting up all over the place. It's an arms race! Schools like George Mason, VCU, Gonzaga and Rhode Island have incredible facilities and basketball is their major sport. There are about 50 of these types of schools that expect to make it to the Sweet 16 every year. In Division 1 football there are 110 or so schools playing and almost half of them get to bowls every year. Basketball is another animal. Our goal is to get to the NCAA tournament this year and I believe that we have a great shot at it. We have to keep our top players healthy and our players need to play together and very unselfishly to make it happen.

JS - How many players on this team will be in the rotation this season?
TP - There is no way to tell at this point. That will shake out between now and January. There is fierce competition at every spot right now. We'll see who performs when the popcorn pops. Starting means nothing but there will be 13 guys who are capable of starting. The players will determine who gets the minutes. We keep stats on every scrimmage situation and video tape as well. Those that perform well in competitive practice sessions will always get the first opportunity to play. Then we evaluate their game performances and so on. We also want to figure out what are the best and most cohesive units; best pressing teams, best zone offensive teams and best overall defensive groups, etc. We are not even close to determining that at this point. Just trust that everything is determined on the court on a daily basis.

JS - Why are we not seeing your pressing defenses you are known for over the past years, and will our team this year be effective with the press?
TP - We have not had the depth of talent to press consistently. Last year we pressed 5 or 6 teams because we felt that they couldn't play at the speed that we wanted to. We also pressed for spots of games because we felt the opposing guards would turn it over and give us easy scoring chances. I hope to press more often this year but time will tell. I don't press just to press. I press to win games and against certain teams a press could be suicide for us. Pressing is designed to speed up the tempo but some nights our opponent will attack it and get too many easy baskets. I believe in the press when I have players that love to press. I also believe that you need to have speed and be at least 10 deep to press effectively. We have the speed but some teams like us love to be pressed and know how to attack a press. Well try to use the press when it's too our advantage.

JS - Our guards have a tendency to seek out the three-point line. Is this being coached or would you prefer them to space and penetrate?
TP - If you shoot 33% from three-point range it is the equivalent of shooting 50% from two-point range. If you shoot three's on the break you have a 60% chance of getting the offensive rebound because the defense is not set and your trailers are crashing and expecting a three to be shot. If you take three's in your set offense the box out assignments are clear. I coach our offense to take advantage of our talent. Our guards and Ramon Dyer were our best scoring threats the last three years. We have been lacking in consistent post up players so we drove it to the paint to finish and create open shots. Hopefully we'll have more interior scoring this year. That too is determined in practice. In all honesty the three is the easiest shot except for an uncontested lay-up. The threat of the three makes teams spread their defense and open up driving lanes. In the off-season kids, even centers, today practice three's. We only have the players to coach about six and a half months a year. That's why the Euro's and Argentinian's are beating our NBA players. They play hoops year round with coaches everywhere but the USA. Nobody wants to work on jump hooks and drop steps even when they are seven feet tall. Even Shaq's game is more about brute force, bull moves, etc., than the Olajowan's, Chamberlain's, Walton's and Jabbar's of yesteryear. I like the kind of guards we have now. Most of them are equally effective on the drive and from the three. Next year they are moving the line back and that may help create more space on the interior. This is also effecting the ability of the post type players. We'll wait and see because the long three and the wider lanes have not encouraged youngsters to develop interior skills at the NBA level with few exceptions. The pull up jumper and 15-foot jumper is also a lost art today because the kids just won't work on it in the off-season. We work real hard on that with our guards and forwards and hopefully we'll see more of that this year.

JS - How do we go about attracting the big dominate center like Olajuwon or Elvin Hayes?
TP - The ones that are out there today are not hard to find but hard to land. Coach Lewis said he had no idea about Hakeem until he got to campus. The Big E was from the country in Louisiana and SEC schools were not recruiting African Americans. The same could be said for the ACC and the SWC. In short, it's not easy but we're always trying. If he's big and can run the floor a big man would be smart to play in an up-tempo system with good guards. Just ask Bill Russell, Hakeem, Jabbar and even Robert Parrish. More rebounds, more blocked shots and plenty of space on the interior. Otherwise they end up playing in the grind it out muscle'em ball leagues where every play is a wrestling match; no stats and ill prepared to play in the NBA where the game has definitely gone to a speed game.

JS - How is recruiting going locally? Are we making inroads in the greater Houston area?
TP - We're doing OK locally and we will always focus on local talent. It takes a very strong person to play at home. A local kid always has more pressure on him to perform in front of family and friends. If a kid has a fragile ego or is lacking in true confidence, it can be difficult for him. For a local kid to succeed, he needs to be very independent and mature because the "homeboys" are going to be jumping on and off the bandwagon from game to game. If a player has "Little League" parents, they can also fold under the pressure and have to explain why they didn't pass it to Joey or Jerry didn't pass it to him down the stretch, etc. When I recruit a local player, I try to get a good feel for the toughness and independence level before we even make an offer. Schools like Memphis and UConn rarely recruit local kids even though their states are loaded with major college talent. If you have the ability to recruit nationally you have to take advantage of it whether you are Gonzaga, Syracuse or Florida. You have to be very careful when you recruit local players for reasons stated above, but you should never eliminate a prospect just because he is local. Since I took over here in 2004 we have had 12-15 local players call, write or have their HS or AAU coaches call us about transferring back to Houston because they are unhappy where they are. We can't take too many because of the 13 scholarship rule. A lot of freshmen find out that they never should have gone away and they transfer to JUCOS and then try to get it right the second time. Some of these players are at very high profile schools. You would be amazed at how highly regarded these kids were out of HS. Transfers and JUCOs are often more desirable because they made their mistake out of HS and they usually find the right school the second time around when there is less input from the advisors and street agent types that are everywhere today. The independent, mature and confident kids usually separate themselves from these influences and they often make the best decisions. Those are the type of kids we want. Their interest in us is at the same level as our's is in them. It makes for a happy marriage. Their decision will affect the rest of their lives. It can be very confusing for these young men unless they are very focused, independent and worldly. We expect to sign at least two local kids this year but don't be surprised if we end up with three or four.

JS - Who are the top five teams in the conference this year?
TP - Probably, Memphis [for sure], UAB, USM, Tulsa and your Coogs...not going to put them in any particular order. I do believe that UCF will be very good, SMU will be much improved and Tulane and UTEP will be extremely competitive. The conference will be much improved for sure. Donnie Jones will be a great coach at Marshall. You can take that to the bank. He worked for years with Billy Donavan and he believes in wide open basketball which Marshall thrived on in their glory days.

JS - Are some of the great former UH players staying involved with the program?
TP - Some are very involved and very helpful. I'd like them all to feel welcome and I welcome their involvement. I don't want to name names but we have some great former players that come to our games, visit practice and mentor our players. I'm proud to be the coach of the Cougars and I'm honored to have their interest and involvement. There are a lot of great Cougars out there and many have opened their hearts and their wallets in support of the program, but we could always use more. Dave Maggard works on that every day. He's the best AD I've ever had. He really cares and really stands up and fights for our University.

JS - What is the toughest conference road game in terms of atmosphere, opponent and coach?
TP - UTEP and Memphis in a tie. They have incredible support at each and every game and they really come out to root against us. Autry Court is pretty tough too. Memphis is the #1 team in the country. John Calipari is a great coach and motivator but I respect all of the coaches in this conference. Larry Eustachy and Mike Davis would be stars in any league and Willis Wilson has done a tremendous job for Rice. We also have some great young coaches like Dave Dickerson and Doug Wojcik. Kirk Speraw at UCF is as good as there is. Mack McCarthy took UT-Chatanooga to the Sweet 16 and he's at East Carolina. Matt Doherty can coach it up with anyone. Barbee at UTEP is a rising star. This league is loaded with great coaches.

JS - What is the toughest arena that you have ever taken a team into?
TP - UConn's Gampel Pavillion #1, Kansas Field House #2. Any call that goes against their team is loudly booed and 90% of the officials have a hard time not being a little intimidated. UConn has always been that way; I know, I played there.

JS - Ok, Coach, here's the bomb; can you get us in the NCAA tournament this year?
TP - Yes! Why not? If we average 6,000 fans at home we might even get to the Sweet 16. Thanks for your coverage of the Coogs!!

Tom Penders

Thanks Coach for spending time with today and good luck this season!


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