With the bulk of Houston's scoring and rebounding coming from the backcourt, the Cougars' inability to get much offensive production from the frontcourt has left the team deeply flawed.
Senior guards Aubrey Coleman (nation's best 26 points per game) and Kelvin Lewis (16 points per game) have done their part, but the rest of the Cougars must step it up when they return home to host Southern Miss on Saturday.
The Cougars' record this season when getting outrebounded fell to 7-9 after UTEP pounded the glass to the tune of a 40-29 advantage in a 65-58 win over Houston on Wednesday night. Look for Southern Miss to try to do much of the same, with junior forwards Gary Flowers and Josimar Ayarza and sophomore guard Maurice Bolden pounding the glass against smaller opponents.
Southern Miss has won three in a row, including a narrow victory over a red-hot SMU team at home Tuesday night. Houston, which has lost three of four, needs a better team effort, especially from junior forward Maurice McNeil and freshman forward Kendrick Washington, to get back on track.
Houston's lone win of late came thanks to a Herculean effort by Coleman, who scored a season-high 37 points in an 81-66 victory over Marshall on Jan. 30. However, his teammates seemed to sit back and wait for him to take over in the loss to UTEP, as he fired up 27 shots, making only nine, for 23 points.
McNeil scored only six points on five shot attempts, and Washington added eight points on eight field-goal attempts in his second career start. They need to get more involved and give Houston some balance.
UTEP 65, HOUSTON 58: The visiting Cougars (11-10, 4-4) couldn't hold onto a 14-point first-half lead, and they missed out on a chance to sweep the season series from UTEP (16-5, 7-1).
Houston scored the game's first eight points and built its lead to 28-14 before UTEP stormed back into the contest with a 12-2 run to close out the first half. The Miners took their first lead at 39-38 in the midst of an 11-0 run that saw them turn a 38-32 deficit into a 43-38 lead. UTEP never trailed again.
Cougars senior guard Aubrey Coleman hit a 3-pointer with 3:29 left to cut UTEP's lead to 55-54, but that was as close as Houston would get down the stretch. The Cougars had a chance to tie the score in the final minute, but true freshman Kendrick Washington missed a 3-pointer with Houston trailing 61-58. UTEP's Jeremy Williams closed out the scoring by sinking four consecutive foul shots in the final seconds.
Houston, which had defeated UTEP 75-65 on Jan. 13, was led by Coleman's 23 points, though the nation's leading scorer took 27 shots. Senior guard Kelvin Lewis was the only other Cougar in double figures with 16. Maurice McNeil led the way in rebounds with nine. Coleman, Lewis and McNeil each played all 40 minutes.
--Aubrey Coleman, the nation's leading scorer, isn't about to ease up on the shooting, but he does think it's time for the Cougars to start playing more defense.
And with the recent emergence of 6-foot-7 freshman forward Kendrick Washington, maybe the concept of defense in Houston isn't that farfetched.
In an 81-66 win on Jan. 30 over Marshall, a team that had been averaging 79.9 points per game, the Cougars went away from their usual four-guard look and inserted Washington into the starting lineup, the first start of his career.
With Washington's help, Houston held Marshall to 37.9 percent shooting from the field.
"We knew we would have to play defense first," Coleman said. "... They were kind of hesitant and we had Kendrick step up tonight and that was a big help. It was a challenge."
The career-high 39 minutes for Washington was something he had to prove to coach Tom Penders he deserved.
"He stood up to coach Penders and told him he wanted to play," said Coleman.
"He was really stepping up and that takes a lot off me. Normally we go with four guards and coach Penders said that we would go with four guards until someone would step up and Ken did that for us."
Washington had 10 points, five rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal and also likely earned himself a regular role alongside forward Maurice McNeil in the once guard-heavy Cougars starting lineup.
But it wouldn't truly be a Penders coaching move to play Washington more if it wasn't at least a little bit about the offense, too.
"We run a lot of plays through him in which he's passing the ball or setting screens, and we're going to expand a lot of that stuff," Penders said of Washington. "We only have a couple plays to get it to him inside, but, there's so many things that he does like passing that we might want to move him to the high post and run some stuff off of him."
--Marshall committed 66 turnovers through its first six C-USA games. Against Houston on Jan. 30, the Cougars forced 22 Marshall turnovers.
ON THE SPOT: F Kendrick Washington looks as if he could be a key player for the undersized Cougars the rest of the way. The 6-foot-7, 270-pound true freshman has averaged nearly 10 points and four rebounds the past three games, earning him a starting spot the past two games. Washington was slowed early in the season after having rods surgically inserted into both legs to repair stress fractures last summer. Having fallen behind in his conditioning, Washington was brought along slowly by coach Tom Penders. But now that he's rounding into shape, Washington is earning more and more minutes, with career-best 10-point outings against Memphis and Marshall before an eight-point performance in the 65-58 loss at UTEP on Wednesday. He has the ability to provide a much-needed inside presence and complement leading rebounder Maurice McNeil in the paint.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I said, 'I don't care if the guy's blocking 20 shots a game. Let's go at him.'" -- Houston coach Tom Penders, to the Houston Chronicle, on a Jan. 30 game against Marshall and the Thundering Herd's shot-blocking sensation Hassan Whiteside.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: The Cougars may be streaky on offense, but they've settled into a rather un-streaky pattern with their schedule. Houston can't seem to string together several wins in a row. The team's longest win streak of the season was three games and that came in late November and early December. What's keeping the Cougars treading water, though, is the fact they've only had one losing streak of more than two in a row when they dropped three from Dec. 29-Jan. 3.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- G Aubrey Coleman, PG Desmond Wade, G Kelvin Lewis, F Maurice McNeil, F Kendrick Washington. Key Subs -- F Sean Coleman, F Kirk Van Slyke, G Zamal Nixon, G Adam Brown.
Central Florida 78, Houston 71
Memphis 92, Houston 77
Houston 81, Marshall 66
UTEP 65, Houston 58
vs. Southern Miss, Saturday, Feb. 6
at Western Kentucky, Tuesday, Feb. 9
vs. SMU, Saturday, Feb. 13
at UCF, Tuesday, Feb. 16
IN FOCUS: It will be a battle of contrasting tempos on Feb. 6 in Houston when the Cougars, C-USA's highest scoring team (77.3 points per league game), and Southern Miss, C-USA's best defensive team (56.8 points per league game), go at it. Southern Miss star Gary Flowers (7.0 rebounds, 2.0 blocks per C-USA game) will be the key.
--Senior G Aubrey Coleman scored a season-high 37 points in Houston's 81-66 victory over Marshall on Jan. 30. He joined Houston legends Elvin Hayes and Otis Birdsong as the only players in school history to score at least 30 points in three consecutive games.
--Sophomore PG Desmond Wade passed the century mark for assists this season in the 81-66 win over Marshall on Jan. 30, making him only the third player in school history (joining Derrick Daniels, 1988-92, and Rob Williams, 1979-82) to accomplish the feat during his first two collegiate seasons.
--Freshman F Kendrick Washington got the second start of his young career in the 65-58 loss to UTEP on Wednesday, and he had eight points and three rebounds before fouling out in the final minute. He first entered the starting lineup in the Cougars' 81-66 win over Marshall on Jan. 30.