2016-17 Houston Cougars Basketball Midseason Review
By: Jimmy Schofield
photo courtesty of uhcougars.com
While technically we’re not at the midpoint of the 2016-17 college basketball regular season, we’ll take a look at how the team’s played during the non-conference portion of their schedule coming off a 57-56 heart breaker versus Harvard at Hofheinz Pavilion Friday night in their last non-conference game of the season.
Standing at 9-3, the Coogs don’t look much different than last year’s team which finished 22-10 and 12-6 in American Athletic Conference play in head coach Kelvin Sampson’s third season. They average 80.5 points-per-game to rank 58th nationally (out of 347 teams listed stats wise in the NCAA’s website) as compared to last season’s 81.5 PPG at the midway point. Defensively they appear to be better than last year as they allow 63.8 (39th) as opposed to last season’s 66.7.
While shooting at a .484 percent clip (37th) from the field and .429 from the 3-point line (THIRD), they shot .472 percent from the field and .718 percent from the free-throw line last season. This year opponents are shooting .402 (71st) and .335 from 3 (137th) while last season they held opponents to .409 from the field and were one of the best teams nationally in 3-pt field goal percentage defense.
In getting to the charity strip almost 19 times per game, they shoot .729 percent (80th). Rebounding wise, the Coogs average 37 (170th) total and 12.3 offensive (94th) while holding opponents to 32.2 and 10.3 offensive boards. Their 4.8 rebound margin ranks them 77th. Last season they had the same five rebounds-per-game disparity but at 40.5 to 35.3 per-game.
While ranking tenth in turnovers at just 10.4 per game, they force 14.5 (124th). Their 4.1 turnover margin ranks them 29th in the nation. Now these stats could be taken with a grain of salt as they rank 52nd in Pomeroy’s Strength-of-Schedule rankings and are 83rd via the NCAA’s RPI rankings in comparison through the first half last season in which they ranked 350th in SOS.
The Harvard game was a microcosm of the season as they lost three of the four games to decent opponents; an 82-77 win over 45thh RPI ranked Rhode Island sandwiched around losses at LSU (84-65) and at Arkansas (84-72) as they just don’t have the big bodies to bang down low with more physical teams, especially with the injuries which we’ll look at in a bit.
When the offense has been rolling, the ball movement has been 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 (14.3 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 which is exactly what happened in the loss to Harvard which has been a microcosm of the season; flashes of great play here and there but too inconsistent against teams with similar talent.
The most improved player is probably Danrad “Chicken” Knowles (6-10, 200, RSr.) as he averages 10.9 points-per-game as compared to just 6 while shooting 57 percent from the field and 73 from the line. Last season he got to the line only 68 times in 32 games while shooting 50 percent. This season Chicken has already been to the line 47 times. His all-around game has improved as he currently averages 4 boards and 1.16 blocks as the “proverbial light switch” has appeared to go off that Sampson has repeatedly talked about over the past few seasons. Chicken is also playing more in the paint whether cutting to the basket or trying to post up his man as he’s averaging 24.4 minutes in his ten starts after starting only 12 times all of last season.
Rob Gray (6-2, 185, Jr.) has also improved his all-around game as he’s averaging 20.4 points while shooting 50 percent from the field, 45 from 3 and 84 from the line. He’s also becoming more of a distributor as he averages 3.3 assists. In 12 games he has 40 assists, compared to only 38 all of last season (in 26 games played). He’s also averaging more rebounds than last season (3.6 to 2.2) and steals (1.33 to 1.15). Gray is 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.
Former walk-on Wes VanBeck (6-2, 190, Jr.) has dramatically improved his game as he averages 8.3 points in his sixth man role, replacing Gray as the spark plug off the bench. While shooting 48 percent from the field and an amazing 56 from 3 (20-for-36), he’s not afraid to put the ball on the floor and take it to the hoop as he’s fourth on the team in free throw attempts at 28 (converting 23). He’s also third on the team in assists (28) and steals (8).
Two players who have regressed just a tad from last season are point guard Galen Robinson Jr. (6-1, 190, So.) and wing Damyean Dotson (6-5, 210, Sr.). Robinson is going through the “sophomore slump” as he averages 5.3 points as compared to 7.9 last season. While 5 points isn’t bad on this team considering the other weapons, he’s shooting only 41 percent from the field (connecting on only 2-of-8 3-pointers) and 67 from the free throw line. He is becoming more of a ball distributor however, averaging 5.7 assists-per-game to only 3.4 last season as he already has 68 assists in 12 games as compared to 110 in 32 last year. In order for this team to win in conference action he’s going to have to become more of a factor as he’s always going to be one of the quickest players on the floor from end-to-end in any game he plays in. His 2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio also needs to improve in conference play as it’s not even in the top-100 currently.
Dotson also hasn’t been consistent in his shooting as he’s connecting on “only” 47 percent of his shots, a year after converting 51 percent of his attempts from the field. He is shooting 47 percent from 3 (36-for-76) but has gotten to the free throw line only 9 times in 12 games (connecting on 8 of them). A lot of this probably has to do with the amount ‘Dot’ is playing on the post as compared to last season when Devonta Pollard occupied many minutes at one post spot. Dotson leads the club with 7.2 rebounds-per-game.
Indiana transfer Devin Davis (6-7, 230, Jr.) was supposed to take Pollard’s place in the post and was averaging 11.1 points (on 50 percent shooting) and 6.5 boards in 21 minutes over the first 8 games before going down with a hand injury at Arkansas two weeks ago. Since then he’s been seen in a walking boot and at this time it’s unknown when he’s going to be back in the lineup.
Sampson on the lack of quality depth inside after Friday’s loss to Harvard, “We don’t have a big margin of error. We have some bodies up front, but we just don’t have a lot of guys that can make a basket yet.”
Those guys that can’t make a basket inside include Kyle Meyer (6-10, 230, Sr.), Bertrand Nkali (6-9, 235, RSr.), and Xavier Dupree (6-9, 210, Sr.) who combine for just 6 points and 6 boards in 30 minutes of action. If Chicken goes down as he did for a huge stretch in the second half (with a laceration above his right eye that needed stitches), and Davis not available, the aforementioned three are going to need to step up in conference play but thus far haven’t provided much besides a glimpse and flashes of decent inside play. Unfortunately it’s going to take recruiting to shore this area of the team up and that won’t happen during the season. For whatever reason, Sampson hasn’t seen the improvement he wants to see in Valentine Sangoyomi (6-9, 250, Jr.) to warrant takin his redshirt off.
Speaking of recruiting, true freshman Armoni Brooks (6-4, 180) has shown he can be instant offense as he’s hitting over 40 percent from 3 and 48 percent overall while averaging 5.3 points in just under 12 minutes per game. Morris Dunnigan (6-3, 195, Jr.), and Mateen Hirbod (6-2, 185, Fr.) haven’t seen enough action to gather much intel on how much they can help the team as they have combined for 38 points in limited time off the bench.
Overall, with only one conference team ranked in the AP Top 25 as of this writing (Cincinnati at 24th), the Coogs are going to have to win more than last year’s 12 league games to earn an at large spot in the Big Dance. Sampson’s squad will probably have to get to at least the conference tournament game. It all starts with a showdown in Hartford, Connecticut (Wednesday December 28 at 2pm local time on ESPN2) as the Coogs take on a Huskies team (5-6) that has six losses before New Year’s for the first time since the 1971-72 season.