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Houston is trying to find an identity early on

November 28, 2014 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – An 84-63 loss is not usually a game you would think a lot of good will come out of. For Kelvin Sampson and Houston, Tuesday night’s loss at Harvard, a game the Crimson won going away, will serve as just that. The result didn’t surprise him at all, but he knew he wanted more out of this game than just the final score.

Houston has a new look this season all over. Sampson took over as head coach after James Dickey retired, and his first team has over a half dozen newcomers. Two of the newcomers, both junior college transfers, start for this team. With that comes an adjustment period for everyone, in stark contrast to the other bench in the gym. Sampson said he’s trying to figure his players out as much as they’re trying to figure him out.

“Tommy (Amaker) has got a bunch of other guys who know who they are. We’re not sure who we are,” said Sampson. “We’re two games into this whole thing for us. I’ve coached these guys for two games, they’ve played for me for two games. We’re still searching.”

The Cougars were playing their third game of the season, having won at Murray State and at home against Morgan State. When the Cougars were able to run, they generally took advantage, even when Harvard got back. The Cougars don’t lack length, which helped them at times get over a defender for a shot or a rebound and gave them a little more room with passes. The problem outside of their running opportunities is that they weren’t able to get inside much.

Indicative of that is that the Cougars were better from behind the arc than inside the arc on the evening. They were 10-25 on three-pointers (40 percent) and 11-38 on two-point shots (29 percent).

Sampson said Harvard is “by far the best team we’ve played,” so he knew a challenge was coming. He wanted to see how the team would respond to it, as well as the adversity they would surely face, both in-game and beyond the game.

“I think this game is actually good for us,” said Sampson. “Sometimes, you have a bit of early success, and there’s a tendency to think you’re a little bit better than you actually are.”

Not helping is a couple of injuries. Sampson said they are about seven deep, and get in trouble if they have to go any deeper, but they’re hopeful of eventually getting two key players back. Junior big man Bertrand Nkali is out with a groin injury, and they hope he can come back in a couple of weeks. The bigger hit is the broken foot sidelining point guard L.J. Rose, who may be out until about the start of conference play.

Rose’s injury may be one reason this team hasn’t gotten untracked offensively to this point. Tuesday’s game was the second time in three games they shot below 35 percent from the field; for the season, they’re shooting 37 percent. It’s three games in, but that’s not an auspicious start, and they’ve also given the ball away 50 times in three games. That’s something a healthy Rose can mitigate, in theory, since he had a 2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. LeRon Barnes is the only Cougar with more assists than turnovers through the first three games.

The Cougars’ non-conference schedule isn’t full of world-beaters, but also isn’t loaded with cupcakes. Oddly, their toughest non-tournament games are road games at Murray State and Harvard, while they have no home opponent over whom a win is likely to have much shelf life for the NCAA Tournament. The next five games are at home and should all be wins, then they play in the Las Vegas Classic against Boise State and either Loyola (Ill.) or Texas Tech. A home date with Mississippi Valley State is then all that stands between them and American Athletic Conference play.

Sampson is happy to be back in the college game after spending six years in the NBA. He’s won over 500 games, and at Oklahoma he made a Final Four run. He’s part of what is basically an all-new contingent in the program, and right now there are a lot of unknowns. If they get Nkali and Rose back by conference play, they have a better chance to be a factor, especially if other players get better while they have a chance to play extended minutes that they might not have with them healthy.

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