ISO Spotlight: Looking at Houston's strong start

Over the past nine seasons, the Houston Cougars have finished over .500 just one time. Over that span, they've had four seasons with six wins or fewer. But head coach Ronald Hughey's team has been looking up over recent seasons, and so far the 2020-21 season looks like it could be the best Houston team we've seen in a while.

The team currently sits at 3-1 on the season, with the sole loss coming to Alabama on the road. Two of Houston's three wins were over major conference foes, including a win over Oklahoma for the second consecutive season. They're 2-0 at home, which I only bring up so I can get a quick "Whose House? Coogs House!" into this article.

So, how is Houston doing it?

UCF transfer Britney Onyeje has been a key part of things, even though she missed the game against Stephen F. Austin.

Onyeje — a graduate of Pflugerville High School — didn't play as a freshman at UCF, then didn't play last year after transferring to UH due to the NCAA's transfer rules. That means her first collegiate action ever came against the Oklahoma Sooners. In a big road game against a Big 12 team, Onyeje responded with 23 points in 27 minutes, going 9-for-19 from the field and 5-for-13 from three.

That 3-point shooting in particular has been key. Onyeje's 10.3 3-point attempts per game rank as the sixth-most in the country per Her Hoop Stats, with her 4.7 makes per game ranking fifth. Despite missing a game, she's 14th in the country in total made threes right now.

Above is a quick example of Onyeje shooting. This was her first made three of the season, and she wasn't particularly open on it, but even with a defender in her face, she drills this one. Here, per Synergy, are her catch-and-shoot numbers:

The most used lineup featuring Onyeje has played 19 minutes so far. And while we have to acknowledge how small that sample size is, it's still impressive to see that that lineup has a net rating of +58.3. What that means: the lineup is scoring 58.3 more points per 100 possessions than their opponents are. That shooting has been a huge part of that. She has a 3-point attempt rate of 67.4 percent, the second-highest mark on the team behind Miya Crump, who is taking 69.2 percent of her shots from three.

Of course, a team is more than just a player, and while Onyeje's performance has been the biggest story, the Coogs are getting production from all kinds of other places too.

Julia Blackshell-Fair has been running the offense, with her five assists per game ranking in the 97th percentile. She's also been grabbing six rebounds per contest. Per Her Hoop Stats, just 20 players in Division I are averaging those numbers, including big-name players like UConn freshman Paige Bueckers, Iowa freshman Caitlin Clark, and Buffalo's Dyaisha Fair.

Speaking of rebounding, the Cougars are doing a really good job of it, with the numbers in green representing their percentile rank among Division I players:

(chart per CBB Analytics)

Houston has been especially effective at generating offensive boards. As a team, they're grabbing 15.2 per game, which ranks 58th in the country. They've struggled to score off those rebounds so far, but as long as they keep generating them, the scoring off putbacks will come.

The Cougars are such a fun team to watch because they play fast, they spread things out, and they don't spend too much time in the midrange. CBB Analytics says that 13.4 percent of Houston's attempts have been midrange twos, which ranks as the second-lowest rate in the American and in the 36th percentile nationally. Contrast that with league-mates SMU, who are fifth in the country in midrange attempt rate at 32.7 percent. They're shooting better on those attempts than Houston, but Houston's overall field goal percentage is higher because they're taking better shots inside of the arc, and Houston is winning games while the Mustangs aren't.

The potentially scary thing for other teams in the American? Houston isn't even firing on all cylinders yet. Tatyana Hill has fouled out of three of the four games so far, and early foul trouble limited her to just 12 minutes in two of those games. A strong offensive rebounder who shot 8.6 percent above league average last season on non-rim paint attempts, Hill was my preseason pick to be the top performer on this Cougars team. That they've been so good with Hill ranking fifth on the team in minutes per game is impressive, and if Hill can even just get her fouls in line with last year when she still was among the Division I leaders in fouls at 3.3 per game, then some added playing time will help the team's interior scoring, which should also open up even better spacing for the team's shooters out on the perimeter.

Looking ahead, Houston's next scheduled game is against No. 23 South Florida on Saturday, though with Wednesday's game against Cincinnati postponed due to a positive COVID test and contact tracing with the UH program, it's hard to definitively say that game will happen on Saturday night.

But if it does, we'll learn a lot about Houston's chances of winning the American, a conference that should be fairly open at the top now that UConn has returned to the Big East.

South Florida has the best offensive and defensive rating in the conference, which is how they've ended up with a net rating of +28.0.

In many ways, the Bulls and the Cougars have a lot of things in common. They have similar 3-point attempt rates. They're virtually equal in field goal attempts per game. They both take 40 twos per 40 minutes. Offensively, these teams profile in such a way that they're almost impossible to distinguish from each other.

The difference is defense. Houston's opponents have an effective field goal percentage of 42.5%, while South Florida's are at 33.8% despite facing Baylor and Mississippi State. It's going to be really, really difficult for Houston to score against this team. Hopefully, Onyeje is back, and hopefully, Hill is able to stay out of foul trouble so she can stay on the floor. If one or both of those things doesn't happen, it could be a long night, especially with the game happening on the road.

But this Cougars team plays some great offense when they're at full strength. It'll be a fun one.

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