Men’s college basketball coaches break down Houston’s high ceiling

Men’s college basketball coaches break down Houston’s high ceiling

Last offseason, Kelvin Sampson didn’t have much time to think about Houston‘s move from the American to the Big 12. The Cougars’ head coach was more concerned with replacing three starters off a team that had earned a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament.

All-American guard Marcus Sasser? Gone. Lottery pick forward Jarace Walker? Gone. Double-figure scorer Tramon Mark and veteran reserve Reggie Chaney? Both gone.

Leaving one conference for another wasn’t exactly at the forefront of Sampson’s preseason thinking.

“It was just a different schedule in some ways,” Sampson told ESPN on Monday.

“We didn’t change anything. We believe in what we’re doing here. I didn’t become a different coach. I didn’t go out and get some magical players or change our culture. We do what we do and we try to do the best we can every night.”

Houston rose to No. 1 in the AP poll this week, the second season in a row in which the Cougars have been atop the rankings. They’re also on track to receive a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season and are favorites to advance to at least the Sweet 16 for the fifth straight NCAA tournament. Despite this being their first season in the best conference in men’s college basketball, the Cougars are poised to win yet another league title.

How good, really, is this iteration of Houston? Wins over Iowa State and Baylor last week vaulted the Cougars alongside UConn and Purdue as national championship favorites. We reached out to opposing coaches to assess their ceiling.

“You can’t simulate it”



Jamal Shead gets the steal and dishes to J’wan Roberts for a slam

Jamal Shead gets the steal from Cincinnati and passes behind to J’wan Roberts for a big slam dunk.

There are two nonnegotiables when it comes to Houston’s program: physical, aggressive defense and physical, aggressive offensive rebounding. Those have been the tenets of the team’s success under Sampson, ranking in the top 25 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency in seven straight seasons (top 10 in each of the past four seasons) and in the top 10 in offensive rebounding percentage in each of the past five seasons.

“We don’t change a whole lot year to year,” Sampson said on a call with reporters earlier this week. “The toughness thing, you got to be built on something. Every team’s going to be known for something. … I choose to be known for what our identity is, how hard we play, our toughness. That stuff matters.”

This season’s defense is Houston’s best under Sampson. The Cougars are ranked No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom and inside the top five in turnover percentage, 2-point defense, block percentage and steal percentage. They have allowed just six opponents all season to score more than one point per possession, and only three have scored more than 70 points in a game.

“They play with a purpose. There’s a lot of effort, but they have a lot of purpose to what they do,” one opposing Big 12 coach said. “You talk about it with your team. They’re going to send two to the ball, so try to throw the ball ahead on ball screens. But they have active hands, they’re jumping in passing lanes. You can’t simulate it. It takes 10, 15 minutes to get adjusted, and you’ve got yourself in a little bit of a hole. They’re physical with their bodies, they’re physical in the paint. Other teams try to do the same thing, but the on-ball defense on the perimeter takes you back a little bit.”

Another coach added, “They’re really connected. You can just tell it’s ingrained in them that defense matters. [Jamal] Shead and [J’Wan] Roberts are obviously great, but [Emanuel] Sharp is a monster on the defensive end. He’s physical, he’s into the ball, and he’s 6-5. He can guard your best perimeter player, and that’s on top of Shead, on top of Roberts.”

The defense has translated from not just the AAC to the Big 12 but also in the NCAA tournament. After his team lost to Houston in the Sweet 16 in 2022, Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd said the short turnaround between games and the unfamiliarity with your opponent makes preparing for the Cougars an almost impossible task.

“You’re better served if you play them a couple times,” Lloyd said at the time. “They do the things they’re good at, at such a high level. It’s hard to get comfortable the first time around. You can try to tell your guys what’s coming, but they actually have a lot better feel for it having experienced it.”



Emanuel Sharp makes the tough layup

Houston’s Emanuel Sharp drives past Iowa State defenders for a layup.

At the other end, the physicality and aggressiveness that allow Houston to be so elite defensively also make it dominant on the offensive glass. It’s been a staple under Sampson, with the Cougars rebounding more than one-third of their misses in nine of his 10 seasons. This season, they’re ninth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage according to KenPom, ninth among power-conference programs in second-chance points per game and third in second-chance points per 100 possessions, according to CBB Analytics.

“Their stuff is elite,” one opposing coach said. “It’s usually four guys. It’s usually just [L.J.] Cryer not going. Shead is in there, Sharp is going, [Ja’Vier] Francis and Roberts. All of a sudden, it’s four athletes and all they’re trying to do is get a hand on it, make extra possessions. I’m sure there’s technique to it, but it’s really just a multiple-effort deal.”

All of Houston’s frontcourt players are terrific offensive rebounders. Roberts led the AAC in offensive rebounding percentage last season and ranks in the top 10 in the Big 12 this season; Francis is right behind Roberts in the Big 12 pecking order; and freshman Joseph Tugler has been better than both this season in limited minutes.

One coach said you can harp on Houston’s strengths as often as you can, but the Cougars are simply better at both than most teams.

“It’s not a pretty brand of basketball,” he said. “They throw it up there and get the offensive rebound and then they stop you.”

“He’s the best player in the league”



Kelvin Sampson credits toughness for Houston’s win over Iowa State

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson explains why Houston’s toughness fueled the team to a win over Iowa State.

After Shead had 26 points and six assists to lead Houston to a 73-65 win over Iowa State last week — avenging the Cougars’ first loss of the season — Sampson went on “SportsCenter” with Scott Van Pelt to sing his praises.

“I hear a lot of people talk about who the best point guard is, I never hear them mention Jamal Shead,” Sampson said. “I wouldn’t trade Jamal Shead for any point guard in America. I think we have the best point guard. He’s a winner, he’s been in this program for four years, he’s what we stand for.”

Shead has steadily made strides during his four-year Houston career and, as a senior, is averaging career highs in points (13.1 PPG), rebounds (3.8 RPG), assists (6.1 APG) and steals (2.3 SPG), while also shooting a career-best 33.7% from 3-point range. He’s the Cougars’ catalyst on the defensive end of the floor and is their closer offensively, the player his teammates look to for a big basket late in games.

“He’s the best player in the league,” a Big 12 coach said. “Everything he does is about winning. How he guards, the shots he takes, how he communicates with guys on the floor. To me, that’s what we want our point guard to look like. He can take over a game. Watch the Iowa State game, they cut the lead to five three times, he scored a basket every time. He dictates the game, then just goes and makes a play.”

Shead is also playing himself onto NBA draft radars, as ESPN’s Jonathan Givony outlined earlier this week.

“They’re going to go through a lull at some point”



L.J. Cryer flushes trey for Houston

L.J. Cryer flushes a 3-point jumper vs. Cincinnati.

While Houston will enter the NCAA tournament as one of the favorites to cut down the nets, it’s not a perfect team. Most of the Cougars’ weaknesses come on the offensive end, even though they’ve had the most efficient attack in the Big 12 in conference play.

They take care of the ball exceptionally well — and their offensive rebounding prowess has already been discussed above — but they rarely get to the free throw line and can struggle to make shots from the perimeter. Houston ranks 12th out of 14 Big 12 teams in effective field goal percentage, 2-point percentage and free throw rate, while sitting in the middle of the pack in 3-point percentage.

In the Cougars’ three losses this season, they shot a combined 20-for-73 (27.4%) from 3-point range.

“You know they’re going to go through a lull at some point,” one coach said. “I don’t know if they have like, 85 points in them.”

The key offensively might be Cryer. The former Baylor Bears transfer was lights-out during the first half of the season, averaging 17.1 points and shooting 40.7% from 3-point range over the first 14 games. Since then, his numbers have dipped to 13.4 points and 35.2% from 3. He had five points in each of Houston’s first two losses, shooting 2-for-9 against Iowa State and 2-for-14 against TCU in the back-to-back games.

But Cryer can also be a difference-maker on the offensive end for Houston, someone with NCAA tournament experience who scored 30 points in Baylor’s second-round loss to Creighton last season.

“He’s got to be the guy that’s consistently making shots,” a Big 12 coach said. “Shead and Sharp are pretty consistent and can do multiple things, whereas Cryer needs to make 3s. That’s a big X factor for them. … I think they have the potential to be a Final Four team and national title contender, but it has to come on the offensive end.”

“You have to jump on them early”



Iowa State hits ridiculous fadeaway late to hand Houston its first loss

Milan Momcilovic hits a tough jumper with two defenders on him to give Iowa State the late lead vs. Houston.

Sampson said earlier this week that the biggest hurdle when it comes to tournament success is going to be the team’s health, which is a familiar theme for the Cougars. Two seasons ago, they lost star Marcus Sasser after 12 games. Last season, Sasser suffered a groin injury in the AAC tournament semifinal, forcing him to miss the title-game loss to Memphis and limiting him in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

This season, sophomore wing Terrance Arceneaux tore his right Achilles in December and was lost for the season, while junior reserve Ramon Walker Jr. tore his meniscus last week and is out for the season.

“Ramon was the culture guy on that white team, which is our second unit,” Sampson told reporters this week. “Energy guy. He held guys accountable that he was guarding. You didn’t get a break if Ramon’s guarding you.”

Without the versatile 6-foot-4 forward, who helped provide interior depth despite his size, Sampson will have to lean more heavily on Temple transfer Damian Dunn and senior Mylik Wilson, who has seen an uptick in minutes recently.

“Walker was a physical presence, he was a guy that could come in and play the 3 and the 4,” an opposing coach said. “Wilson’s trajectory seems to be going upward. He was taking minutes from Dunn, we moved him up the scouting report.”

One final key mentioned by multiple Big 12 coaches was weathering the early runs from Houston and trying to get a lead at the start of the game. In their two wins last week over Iowa State and Baylor, the Cougars jumped out to 19-6 and 27-10 leads, respectively. Conversely, in two of their losses this season, they started out down 14-0 to Iowa State and 23-11 to Kansas.

According to, which tracks how many 10-0 runs a team has scored and conceded, Houston leads the nation in “kill shots,” averaging 1.07 per game and totaling 30 this season.

“It’s just so hard to get back into the game if you get down,” one coach said. “They’re elite defensively, they make it so hard to score in the paint, they’re so physical. I think you have to jump on them early. They’re so used to winning and being ahead. You have to be able to score early, put a little bit of doubt in their mind. Everything we talked about was getting off to a good start, because that’s your opportunity.

“If you get down, good luck out there.”

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