Kelvin Sampson Is Helping Houston Basketball Turn the Corner

Posted by Nate Kotisso on January 13th, 2016

Kelvin Sampson walked into a postgame press conference last week and strangely had difficulty getting his words out. He appeared to be fighting a toothache or something like that, but he quickly explained himself. “I put a Tootsie Roll in my mouth,” Sampson said, smirking. “That was a bad idea.” As he puts together another college hoops reclamation project — this time at Houston — Sampson can’t help but feel relaxed enough to pop in a Tootsie Roll before a press conference. His Cougars had just finished off Tulane before 3,235 fans at Hofheinz Pavilion to move to 13-2 on the year. It was yet another easy win in the career of a coach who has tallied a lot of them, but it wasn’t always this easy.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson watches his Cougars rack up another home victory over Tulane. Houston improved to 10-0 at home. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle)

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson watches his Cougars rack up another home victory over Tulane. Houston is now 10-0 at home. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle)

Sampson’s inaugural season at Houston in 2014-15 was predictably difficult. The Cougars went 13-19, good for a 10th place finish in the 11-team American. Many of their issues centered on a lack of consistent scoring (64.4 points per game — 234th nationally). During the offseason, Sampson was scouring the transfer market to improve his team’s scoring when he stumbled upon Rob Gray, Jr., a shooting guard from Howard College. Gray was in the midst of winding down his recruitment process and had just enjoyed dinner with then-Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall and his coaching staff on March 26. The next morning, Tyndall was fired by Tennessee. Sampson quickly pounced on the opening and got Gray to commit to an official visit before signing him in mid-April. Read the rest of this entry »

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Loss of Amida Brimah Leaves UConn With Limited Options

Posted by Jared Kotler on December 24th, 2015

As Connecticut prepared to wrap up non-conference play this week, the Huskies suffered a key loss as center and defensive stalwart Amida Brimah broke his finger in practice. Brimah’s injury will require surgery and cause the junior to be sidelined for six to eight weeks. As one of the best rim protectors in college basketball, his loss will be tough to overcome. The hope for Kevin Ollie is that his team’s depth will find a way to pick up the slack heading into next week’s game at Texas followed by the start of conference play.

UConn will try to figure out how to handle the loss of center Amida Brimah. Photo Credit: Getty Images

UConn will try to figure out how to handle the loss of center Amida Brimah. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

So where does UConn go from here? Standing at 8-3 with a couple quality wins over Michigan and Ohio State but not much else to show for this season, the Huskies will need to put together a strong performance in the American if they want to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Here are two areas where Ollie must focus on improvement.

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Report Card: Finals Week Wrap in the American

Posted by Jared Kotler on December 22nd, 2015

Finals week is always one of the slower times of the college basketball season, but there was still a decent amount of action that took place in the American last week. With the events of the last week in mind, here’s an AAC Report Card.  

A: SMU. This was a great week for SMU. Not only did the Mustangs roll over Nicholls State and Hampton to stay undefeated, but head coach Larry Brown also returned from his nine-game suspension for rules violations. What has made this SMU team so potent? Based on the most recent KenPom ratings, SMU owns the eighth most efficient offense in college basketball and the 55th most efficient defense. That offense, with potential AAC Player of the Year Nic Moore leading the way, has carried SMU through its relatively soft non-conference schedule, but there is hardly a Mustang who hasn’t joined the party: seven of SMU’s eight rotation players have offensive ratings among the 115 best in the country. The lone exception, Keith Frazier, is still 371st nationally with an offensive rating of 116.9. There will be no postseason in Dallas, but this is a fun team that really knows how to run an offense.  

A: UConn. Following close losses to Maryland, Gonzaga and Syracuse, UConn was looking for another quality win to go along with its late November victory over Michigan. The Huskies found it in a 20-point demolition of Ohio State, a team that has struggled but managed to beat Kentucky last weekend. Kevin Ollie tightened up his rotation against the Buckeyes, reserving major minutes for only seven players. This meant no playing time for Sam Cassell Jr. and Phil Nolan and only a minute of mop-up action for freshman big man Steven Enoch. UConn will look to build on this win as they play one-win Central Connecticut on Wednesday before heading to Austin to face a rising Texas team in its final non-conference game.

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Houston Transfers Leading Offensive Surge

Posted by Jared Kotler on December 11th, 2015

Going into Tuesday night’s matchup against Rhode Island, Houston had been a pleasant surprise. The Cougars’ 5-0 record looked great, even if all of their games had come at home against subpar opponents (none ranked higher than #143, according to KenPom). However, a road game against a team picked to finish near the top of the Atlantic 10 represented Houston’s first attempt to compete with legitimate teams. Kelvin Sampson‘s team ended up falling short against the Rams, but it showed in the loss that an improved offense will make the Cougars a tough out in the American this season.

Purdue transfer Ronnie Johnson is leading the Houston offense to new heights this season. Photo Credit: Ronnie Johnson Twitter

Purdue transfer Ronnie Johnson is leading the Houston offense to new heights this season. (Photo: Twitter)

To say Houston was bad offensively last year would be an understatement, as the Cougars ranked no higher than 200th in every KenPom offensive category but one, offensive rebounding percentage. In Sampson’s second year, however, Houston appears to have turned the corner, ranking in the top 100 of almost every category to date. Transfers Rob GrayRonnie Johnson and Damyean Dotson have joined a mix of veteran returnees in allowing the Cougars to employ a more fluid and successful offense. 

Gray, a JuCo transfer, has quickly settled in. He has scored in double figures in every game so far, including a 14-point outing against this week against the Rams. In addition to being a consistent scorer, Gray has been one of the team’s most effective three-point shooters, making 40 percent of his shots. Gray’s backcourt mate Johnson has been even more effective, as evidenced by his sensational 136.3 offensive rating (23rd in the nation). However, the Purdue transfer struggled in his first game against tough competition, recording only two points on 1-of-7 shooting. It could easily be a random anomaly, but if Houston would like to make a run in the American, Johnson will need to play at a high level against every level of competition. Dotson, the most highly regarded of the trio, submitted a 19/12 double-double in the losing effort against Rhode Island, but he has a sterling offensive rating of his own (121.2) and will be called upon to continue the scoring touch that he brought over from Oregon.

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Rushed Reactions: #6 Maryland 76, Connecticut 66

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 9th, 2015

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Maryland was too strong up front for Connecticut. The combination of Diamond Stone and Robert Carter ended up being too much for the Huskies to handle around the basket. Stone and Carter combined for 24 points and 20 rebounds, an impressive showing against Amida Brimah. The Huskies made a second half push from the three-point line which made the game interesting late, but Maryland’s earlier work in the paint was too much for Connecticut to overcome. The Terrapins absolutely dominated the rebounding battle (45-24) and pulled down 14 offensive rebounds, leading to 15 second chance points.

    Melo Trimble had a lot to smile about Tuesday evening. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

    Melo Trimble had a lot to smile about Tuesday evening. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

  2. Melo Trimble’s ability to get in the lane was the difference. Trimble was aggressive as usual tonight and that is best reflected in his free throw numbers. The sophomore point guard went to the free throw line 15 times, converting 14 of them. Trimble is very strong and uses his body tremendously when driving to the basket. Connecticut couldn’t keep him out of the lane, a place where he is absolutely lethal. Containing him is key to defeating Maryland and the Huskies just did not do that. Trimble makes so much happen whether it’s creating for himself or for his teammates. He has truly become one of college basketball’s best point guards in such a short time with the Maryland program.
  3. Connecticut needs an offensive presence in the paint. Although a highly talented group, Daniel Hamilton, Rodney Purvis and Sterling Gibbs can’t do it all for the Huskies. While Amida Brimah is a tremendous presence defensively, he is not a factor on the other side of the ball. UConn forwards Hamilton and Shonn Miller are not big enough to have success in the paint against teams like Maryland with strong frontcourts. Granted, UConn will not be facing teams the caliber of Maryland throughout the season but this has to be a concern for Kevin Ollie as teams key in defensively on his talented crop of guards.

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Buy or Sell: Middle of the Pack American Teams

Posted by Jared Kotler on December 7th, 2015

Since its creation, the AAC has seen a trend of clearly tiered divisions in the league. This season has been no different, as the top of the conference seems solid with three teams currently ranking among KenPom’s top 30: Cincinnati, Connecticut and SMU. From there things get a bit murkier, but there still seems to be a clear middle of the pack in Tulsa and Memphis. The American has provided unexpected results before: Which of these two middle-tiered teams could make a run to the top of the league? Teaser: One is better positioned for such a surge than the other. 

SELL: Tulsa (KenPom Ranking: #60)

Tulsa needs Shaq Harrison to step up if the team would like to make a run to the top of the American.

Shaquille Harrison has done a good job leading Tulsa this year, but the bench needs to chip in more for a happy ending to this Golden Hurricane season.

Less than two weeks ago things were looking up for Tulsa. Fresh off a win over #9 Wichita State, everyone was jumping on the bandwagon. However, since that game, Tulsa has struggled immensely, with losses to South Carolina, Arkansas-Little Rock, and most recently, Oral Roberts. The Golden Hurricane also had to come back from 19 points down to defeat MAC outfit Ohio University. A win over intrastate rival Oklahoma State during this span cannot be overlooked, but the Cowboys have also struggled this year (with a KenPom ranking of #98 with bad losses to Missouri State and George Mason). What’s changed in the past couple weeks? Mainly, Tulsa has gone back to its old poor habits on the offensive end of the court.

When we last checked in with the Golden Hurricane, the team had shown improvement on the offensive end, boasting the 19th-best effective field goal percentage in the country after their defeat of Wichita State. Today, that same statistic has dropped by 11 percent to 50.1%, now good for just 141st in the nation. Senior leaders like Shaquille Harrison have performed at a relatively high level (minus a four-point outing against Arkansas-Little Rock), but the bench has failed to provide consistent production. One expected bench contributor who has yet to show up is Rashad Ray. The senior played a large role for Tulsa last year, averaging 7.5 points per game. He’s managed only 2.8 points per contest this year, including zero points in a loss to South Carolina and only three in the most recent loss to Oral Roberts. Tulsa will have a few more opportunities in the non-conference schedule to boost its resume, and they will need to capitalize on them with the Wichita State win looking less stellar by the day. The Golden Hurricane needs their role players to step up and play at a higher level if they are to do so.

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Off to a Hot Start, Cincinnati’s Improved Offense the Key

Posted by Jared Kotler on December 2nd, 2015

Going into the season, Cincinnati wasn’t getting a whole lot of respect. Despite being picked to finish third in the American by the league’s coaches, Mick Cronin thought his team was better than that. Fast forward a month and the Bearcats are out to a blazing hot 7-0 start, including two solid wins against Nebraska and George Washington in last week’s Barclays Center Classic. Led by a new-look offense, Cincinnati takes on a tough Butler team tonight at home. Let’s take a quick look at what has made Cincinnati look more like a contender than a sleeper through the first two-plus weeks of the young season.

•The UC-UConn rivalry benefits from the mutual respect between Cronin and Ollie (Richard Messina / Hartford Courant)

A lot of pundits felt Cincinnati would stagnate this season but Mick Cronin has his squad pointing up so far. (Richard Messina / Hartford Courant)

Elite Defense

Defense is a staple of Cronin’s Cincinnati teams. The Bearcats have had a top 50 defense in each of the last six seasons, and Cincinnati is off to its best defensive start under Cronin ever, ranking third nationally and allowing more than 70 points only once thus far (Western Carolina). Let’s take a look at the team’s most recent performance in a 61-56 victory over George Washington. Two statistics stand out — the Colonials’ three-point and two-point field goal percentages. The Bearcats held GW to a miserable 29 percent shooting on two-point attempts, and it was only by virtue of 50 percent shooting beyond the arc that the Colonials stayed in the game. This shows that Cincinnati will muck things up inside the paint in an effort to prevent any easy baskets, even if by doing so the Bearcats give up some open threes in the process. Read the rest of this entry »

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UConn Seeks Signature Wins in Atlantis

Posted by Jared Kotler on November 25th, 2015

Coming off last year’s disappointing season that resulted in a trip to the NIT, Kevin Ollie‘s UConn Huskies have retooled and should be looking to make a statement in this week’s Battle 4 Atlantis. To accomplish that mission, here are three things UConn will be looking to do — besides eat a little Thanksgiving turkey — this Feast Week.

If UConn Meets Syracuse On Thursday, Daniel Hamilton Will Be Key In Picking Apart The Vaunted ‘Cuse Zone. (NBC Connecticut)

Win the opening game: This may seem obvious, but UConn’s Battle 4 Atlantis opener is crucial. Given the way the bracket sets up, beating Michigan must happen for the Huskies to have real chances at resume-building wins. It’s not that dissimilar a situation to the 2010 Maui Invitational that UConn won. Those Kemba Walker-led Huskies opened with a victory over Wichita State, a win that enabled them to post marquee wins over Michigan State and Kentucky. A UConn loss to Michigan would most likely result in a matchup with a Charlotte (KenPom #275). Win, and a matchup with old Big East foe Syracuse is a good bet to happen. Out of conference scheduling has been a focus of UConn since conference realignment left them with fewer in-conference opportunities for big victories, and needless to say, the Huskies didn’t travel to Atlantis to take on Charlotte. Michigan comes into this game after a home loss to Xavier in the Gavitt Games, so they will also arrive in Nassau desperate for a solid early win. Read the rest of this entry »

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Tulsa Primed to Make Noise After Beating Wichita State

Posted by Jared Kotler on November 19th, 2015

In only its second season in the American, Tulsa scored a significant early victory in beating #9 Wichita State. Last year, despite a 21-9 regular season record which included only four conference losses, Tulsa was left outside of the NCAA Tournament’s field of 68. One reason for that snub was the lack of quality wins on the Golden Hurricane’s resume. They had played a relatively tough schedule but couldn’t seem to find a way to win the big games, whiffing on non-conference opportunities against Wichita State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State (also of note from last year’s pre-conference slate: an embarrassing loss to Division II Southeast Oklahoma State). Heading into this year, Tulsa knew it had an opportunity to redeem itself in this early-season meeting with the Shockers. Frank Haith’s squad cashed in this time, and Tulsa fans have plenty of reasons to be optimistic given how the team has performed so far this season.

Marquel Curtis has broken out offensively and looks to help lead Tulsa to the top of the American. (Tulsa World.

Marquel Curtis has broken out offensively and looks to help lead Tulsa to the top of the American. (Tulsa World)

So what seems to be the difference-maker for this year’s team? For one thing, the Golden Hurricane have come out firing on all cylinders, particularly on the offensive end. Although we are looking at an extremely small sample size, examining the effective field goal percentage as a team gives an interesting look into Tulsa’s early success. According to KenPom, Tulsa had a team effective field goal percentage of 47.1 percent a season ago, ranking among the worst groups in the country (241st nationally). This number has jumped dramatically over two games this season, to 61.7 percent, giving Tulsa the 19th-highest effective team field goal percentage in college hoops as of today. Read the rest of this entry »

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Opening Weekend Takeaways from the American

Posted by Jared Kotler on November 16th, 2015

The American Athletic Conference opened with 11 contests featuring league squads over the weekend — including two victories for Cincinnati and an easy win for the AAC’s only ranked team at the moment. While exceptionally early, it’s never too soon to make some initial observations. Here are five such thoughts from over the weekend.

  1. UConn, Cincinnati and SMU are the Teams to Beat: Since the American’s existence as a conference, there has been a clear divide between the top and bottom halves of the league. From this weekend’s results, it appears as if there will be a clear divide between the top three teams and the rest of the conference. UConn, Cincinnati and SMU did exactly what was expected of them — which was to roll over their weaker opponents. It will be interesting to see how these three teams fare as they play some tougher non-conference teams in the coming weeks.

    After a promising opening weekend, Farad Cobb looks to lead Cincinnati on the offensive end this year. (USA TODAY Sports)

    After a promising opening weekend, Farad Cobb looks to lead Cincinnati on the offensive end this year. (USA TODAY Sports)

  2. Has Cincinnati Found Its Go-To Scorer? As discussed in our opening weekend hopes post, Cincinnati needs to find a go-to player on the offensive end of the floor. Head coach Mick Cronin thought that Troy Caupain might become that player, but senior Farad Cobb surprised everyone this weekend with 11 points in the opener against Western Carolina, including a 3-of-3 performance from behind the arc. To show some consistency, Cobb followed that up with a team-high 15-point outing against Robert Morris on Sunday. If Cobb can consistently perform at this level, the Bearcats become much more dangerous with legitimate perimeter scoring to complement what Gary Clark and Octavious Ellis are doing inside. Read the rest of this entry »
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Opening Weekend Hopes in the American

Posted by Jared Kotler on November 13th, 2015

The American Athletic Conference has the potential to be one of the better leagues in the country this year. As the college basketball season is about to tip off, we take a look at one thing each American team would like to see coming out of their opening weekend of games.

UConn: Shonn Miller averages at least eight rebounds per game.

Grad Transfer Shonn Miller looks to make his impact on the boards at UConn this year. (USA TODAY Sports)

Grad transfer Shonn Miller looks to make his impact on the boards at UConn this year. (USA TODAY Sports)

A lot has been made this offseason about the group of fifth year transfers that Kevin Ollie has brought to Storrs. Most notable among them is the heir apparent to Ryan Boatright, Sterling Gibbs, but could Cornell transfer Shonn Miller be a bigger key to UConn’s season? Miller is a true power forward, a position UConn has struggled with of late. Last year’s team was led in rebounding by Daniel Hamilton (7.6 rebounds per game), while seven-footer Amida Brimah was only able to pull down just over four rebounds a game. Brimah’s struggles on the glass were one reason why Ollie was excited to bring in Miller, an experienced player who excelled at Cornell, averaging just under nine rebounds per game as a senior. Miller’s rebounding prowess could make him the key glue guy on this year’s UConn team. Read the rest of this entry »

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UConn’s Offensive Issues and How Rodney Purvis is the Only Cure

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 29th, 2015

UConn do-it-all guard Ryan Boatright looks like he might run away with AAC Player of the Year honors this season, but when it comes to determining whether the Huskies will make the NCAA Tournament, it will ultimately be the play of running mate Rodney Purvis who makes the biggest difference. Let there be no debate that Boatright is the best and most important player on the team, but the senior isn’t the offensive player Shabazz Napier was and he doesn’t have a running mate as good as he was as Napier’s complement last season. Rather, Boatright is a skilled but flawed offensive player who cannot shoulder the burden by himself, as evidenced by the team’s overall ugly offensive efficiency numbers. And after getting a chance to watch the Huskies play in a road loss to Stanford last week followed by a win over UCF and a man-handling of South Florida last weekend, it is clear that Purvis is the player most capable of lending Boatright a hand.

Rodney Purvis' Offense Is UConn's Key To Returning To The NCAA Tournament.

Rodney Purvis’ Offense Is UConn’s Key To Returning To The NCAA Tournament.

His performance this season has in many ways been a microcosm for what has plagued UConn all season long, though — consistency. The NC State transfer has only scored 10 or more points in back-to-back games once this season (against Columbia and Central Connecticut State), and even within the flow of games, Purvis can frustratingly flit in and out of focus. At times last week against the Cardinal, Purvis looked unstoppable. He bullied his way to the basket whenever he felt like it; he made a few contested jumpers over smaller defenders look easy; and despite making just one of his five free throws, his aggression helped teammates get open looks. When the final horn sounded, he had logged 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and the rest of the Huskies had managed just 45 more points in their second straight loss. The team’s offensive funk reached its low point during the second half, and Purvis was seemingly content to fade into the background as Boatright forced floaters in the lane and Amida Brimah tried his luck in the post. Purvis has UConn’s best combination of size and athleticism on the court, and Stanford had absolutely nobody who could effectively guard him. And yet he was a veritable ghost in the second half. He followed up the disappointing Stanford performance with an ugly eight points on 3-of-8 shooting in an equally ugly win over UCF after that, and then looked like a man reborn last Sunday against South Florida as he went for 17 points, including 8-of-12 from the charity stripe and abused whichever poor player drew the unlucky assignment of guarding him.

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