Houston came within a last-second 3-pointer of reaching the Sweet 16 last season. Despite the setback, the Cougars enjoyed a remarkable 2017-18, winning their first NCAA Tournament game since 1984, finishing No 21 in the final AP poll, and securing wins over Top 10 teams Cincinnati and Wichita State.
Falling 64-63 to eventual national runner-up Michigan at the buzzer was tough. But the program is on the upswing under coach Kelvin Sampson, who is entering his fifth season leading the American Athletic Conference member.
The Cougars defeated San Diego State 67-65 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It’s just that the season could have been even better.
“It was one of those teams we felt we could beat anybody we were playing against,” said Sampson, who previously was head coach at Oklahoma and Indiana and has 14 NCAA Tournament rings on display in his office.
“We’ve become a major college basketball program and we run this as a major college basketball program.”
Riding a wave of momentum, with a good core returning to blend with an exceptional recruiting class, the Cougars usher in a new era of Houston basketball with the opening of the $60 million state-of-the-art Fertitta Center. It’s a game-changer for the Cougars, who return three starters from a 27-8 team that shared second (14-4) in the AAC and reached the conference tournament championship game.
Corey Davis Jr. should take over from Rob Gray Jr., as the team’s leading scorer. Gray, who averaged 19.3 points, joined Otis Birdsong (SWC) as the only Cougars to win multiple conference scoring titles. The team’s top returning leading scorer (13.1), Davis made a team-high 103 3-pointers with a .429 3-point field goal percentage.
“We’ll put a lot on Corey,” Sampson said.
Davis’ backcourt mate Galen Robinson Jr., is looking to become only the second player in UH history with 100-plus assists in four seasons. Robinson averaged 3.7 assists and led the team with 46 steals.
Guard Armoni Brooks had a breakout sophomore campaign last season, averaging 9.3 points and 3.7 rebounds en route to being named the AAC’s Sixth Man of the Year. Brooks trailed only Davis on the team in made 3-pointers (83).
Sampson believes forwards Fabian White Jr. and versatile Cedric Alley Jr. each could have a breakout 2018-19 season. Alley redshirted as a freshman while White was selected to the All-AAC Rookie Team. White led UH with 32 blocks.
“We need him (White) to take a huge step forward,” Sampson said. “Armoni has another step forward (in him).”
White entered last year at 6-6½, 196 pounds. He’s now close to 6-8, 226 pounds.
The center position won’t be maintained by only one player. Senior Breaon Brady, 6-8, made 31 starts. But he was plagued by foul problems, averaging 4.1 rebounds. Sampson said Brady’s foul issues are irrelevant because of the depth at the position.
The improving Chris Harris Jr., 6-10, returns for his junior season at the post. The most athletic player on the team is 6-8 sophomore Brison Gresham, who two years ago made 13 starts for UMass at forward.
Also eligible this season is 6-5 sophomore DeJon Jarreau, a proven player who also started his college career at UMass. Jarreau started 25 games for the Minutemen at point guard, averaging 9.8 points and 4.5 assists.
Nate Hinton is the Cougars’ prized 6-5 freshman, making ESPN’s top 100 after averaging 19.9 points, 7.7 assists and 4.0 rebounds his senior high school season in North Carolina. Sampson wanted to get bigger on the wing and succeeded.
Newcomers Jarreau, Gresham and Hinton will all compete for starting positions, as well as Brooks.
Last season, Houston started three 6-1 players. So getting more length from perimeter players was needed. Despite being the 318th shortest team in the country in 2017-18, the Cougars were seventh nationally in rebounding.
“We didn’t win because of Rob Gray, we won because of our defense,” Sampson said. “We have a chance to be a better team because of defending and rebounding.”
Projected Starting Five:
- Corey Davis Jr., Sr., G, 6’1, Lafayette, Louisiana
- Galen Robinson Jr., Sr., G., 6’1, Houston, Texas
- DeJon Jarreau, So., G, 6’5, New Orleans, Louisiana
- Brison Gresham, So., F, 6’8, New Orleans, Louisiana
- Fabian White, So., F, 6’7, Atascocita, Texas
Corey Davis Jr. will be needed to take on a bigger scoring role and add to his 13.1 scoring average. Already one of the AAC’s top 3-point shooters, topping the league with 2.9 3-pointers made per game, Davis is an excellent rebounder at 6-1 and a quality defender.
After just missing out on its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1984 and losing in the AAC tournament championship game by one point, Houston, with more overall talent than a year ago, is primed for a NCAA Tournament run. The Cougars should contend for the league crown and easily exceed 20 wins.
Sampson has the Cougars in position where the program should sustain success. But if Davis and Brooks don’t take that progressive leap that is expected, the Cougars will have a more difficult road remaining among the AAC’s elite this season.
Game of the Year:
Dec. 1 vs. Oregon. The Cougars play their first game in the Fertitta Center against Oregon, a 23-game winner last season and two years removed from a Final Four appearance.
Impact First-Year Player:
DeJon Jarreau, So., G, 6’5, New Orleans, Louisiana