Kelvin Sampson, he of the 458 career coaching victories, including a Final Four run with Oklahoma in 2002, has the Houston program trending in the right direction.
The Cougars already have seven more wins than they had all of last year, and a win on Sunday against UConn (20-8, 10-5 American) would give Houston (20-8, 10-6) its most victories in a single season since 2009, back when Tom Penders held the clipboard in Conference USA.
Then again, without discounting the special year Houston is enjoying, especially by its recent standards, it goes to show how little weight the 20-win plateau carries anymore.
Houston is ranked just 61st in KenPom and, even if it were to win out at UConn (1 p.m., CBS Sports) and at home against Cincinnati on Thursday, this is still probably an NIT team at best. That's mainly due to Houston's 144th-ranked strength of schedule- their non-conference slate subsumed even more cupcakes than the conference schedule already offered, as the Cougars played the 29th-softest non-league competition.
Still, even being able to bring up Houston's resume this time of year speaks volumes to the job Sampson has done in just his second season on the job. The Cougars are certainly no pushover. They come into Storrs with some serious momentum, having won 7 of 9, and they trail UConn by just a half-game in the American Conference standings.
Why the quick turnaround? For one, impact transfers have played a major factor in accelerating the rebuild.
Junior Damyean Dotson (13.6 PPG, 6.6 RPG) averaged over 10 points per game in two seasons at Oregon before getting kicked off the team amid sexual assault allegations. Dotson's Offensive Rating of 128.8 is 22nd-best in the entire country.
Devonta Pollard (13.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG), a former McDonald's All-American, played one season at Alabama, then was charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping when his mother abducted a 6-year-old girl from a school. (He later would testify against his mother; she was sentenced to prison for 25 years.) Pollard, a 6-foot-8 lefty with a nice face-up game who gets to the free throw line often, was welcomed with open arms at Houston and has been able to revive his career.
The next step for Pollard is overcoming his worst game of the season. In UConn's 69-57 win over Houston back on January 17, the senior finished with just 2 points on 0-of-7 shooting. He enters Sunday red-hot, however, averaging 18.9 points and 6.3 rebounds over his last seven contests.
Along with sweet-shooting Rob Gray—more on him below—Dotson and Pollard lead a Cougars offense that is ranked 22nd nationally in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency.
The Numbers Game
UConn was on the verge of losing at Hofheinz Pavilion, Houston's home arena, for the third consecutive year before ending that January 17 outing on a 16-3 run. Sterling Gibbs led the Huskies with 20 points while Shonn Miller and Daniel Hamilton each chipped in 14.
That was also the first game in which freshman Jalen Adams started for Rodney Purvis, the latter of whom has come off the bench ever since. Adams had a coming-out party of sorts, scoring 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting. More and more, Kevin Ollie is beginning to realize that the Huskies are at their best with Adams running the show.
Houston's Rob Gray may not be the American Conference's most physically imposing player upon first glance, but the sophomore is the league's leading scorer at 17.1 points per night. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound guard is a high-volume player, as he also leads the AAC in Possession % (possessions involving a player while on the court) and Shots % (ratio of shots taken by team while on the court). There's some quality to that quantity, though, as he possesses a 111.2 Offensive Rating while shooting 50.5% on twos and 34.6% on threes. Oddly enough, Gray has actually come off the bench ever since missing four games with an ankle sprain earlier this month.
SMU and Cincinnati aren't the only two league members that eat glass on the offensive end. Houston ranks 17th in America in Offensive Rebounding Rate, a number that UConn is going to have to keep low if it wants to sweep the season series on Sunday. That being said, Houston is very susceptible to opponents' second-chance opportunitiesâthe Cougars are 300th out of 351 Division-1 teams in Defensive Rebounding Rateâwhich can be partly attributed to their occasional use of a 3-2 zone look on defense.