Defense becomes calling card for elite recognition
Kelvin Sampson ran into one of his recruits Sunday afternoon in the hallway at the Fertitta Center after a victory unlike any the University of Houston has posted in 35 years.
“Did you see that defense?” Sampson said.
Oh, he saw it, Coach. We all did.
Then Sampson, whose teams have been as tough as any in the country from the moment he took over at Montana Tech in the early 1980s, went on and on with the kid about all the defense he is going to learn as a Cougar.
It is a good bet there will be a story in this newspaper about the young man finally coming into his own as a defender under
Defensive efforts like Sunday’s in which the Cougars limited Cincinnati to 33 percent shooting, blocked nine shots and held the Bearcats scoreless over the final six minutes are what Sampson-coached teams are usually built to do.
While it is roaring and rhythmic, the “De-fense! … De-fense! … De-fense!” chant from the ultra-loud crowd at the newest and hippest arena in town isn’t required.
Sampson’s Cougars play as nasty a brand of defense when no one is watching as they do when they have the full attention of a sold-out arena and the spotlight of a national television audience.
Unlike the Rockets, who on most nights treat defense like an evil that is hardly necessary, Sampson’s squad will growl and scowl, scratch and claw, hustle and tussle to please its coach.
The underpaid players at Fertitta Center aren’t as talented as the pros a few miles away at Toyota Center, but they are far more aggressive on the defensive end of the floor.
Perhaps the couple of Rockets who were on hand picked up a few pointers.
What a grand afternoon of UH basketball it was.
The Cougars pulled away down the stretch to claim a 65-58 win over the 25th-ranked Bearcats and improve to 23-1.
Surging up the rankings
UH, which is ranked 12th and has a good chance to move into the top 10 when the new polls come out Monday, has won 32 consecutive games at home.
The Cougars haven’t lost a game in the sparkling new Fertitta Center and haven’t lost a game in Houston in two years.
They are alone atop the American Athletic Conference standings at 10-1 and remain in position for a No. 3 or maybe even a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Sampson said defense is a big part of this team’s DNA.
It is why the Cougars can make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
Sunday’s contest marked the first time a ranked UH squad hosted a ranked visitor in 35 years. That was in February 1984, when Phi Slama Jama was slammin’ and jammin’ and Hakeem was Akeem.
UH home games hadn’t rocked like that since then. Until this season, that is.
Sunday’s crowd was so into it that it didn’t take a halftime break. Red Panda, the iconic NBA halftime acrobat who handles dishes with her feet while on a unicycle better than most of us can use our hands standing flatfooted in the kitchen, received thunderous applause during intermission.
“The crowd is like another player,” said UH senior guard Corey Davis Jr, who finished with 16 points.
Opponents are having enough problem with the five players UH puts on the court at a time.
Cincinnati’s shooting got even worse in the second half (26.5 percent), and the Bearcats missed their last 10 shots, all of which came after they took a 58-57 lead with 6:11 left.
Jarron Cumberland had a game-high 27 points for Cincinnati but was shut down after Sampson put freshman Nate Hinton on him.
Praise from Bearcats
Brison Gresham had four blocked shots, Chris Harris Jr. added two, and 6-1 Galen Robinson Jr. joined the competition for the most spectacular rejection with a chase-down and block of what should have been an easy breakaway dunk.
Defense was the story on this day, but the Cougars are capable of lighting it up.
Their adaptability could make a significant difference come Tournament time.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said UH can get the best of an opponent with offense, defense and rebounding.
“They’re the best team we’ve played,” Cronin said of the Cougars. “They put pressure on you for 40 minutes.”
Cronin also saluted UH’s depth, which was on display Sunday as well, with DeJon Jarreau coming off the bench to jackknife his way into tying Davis for the team lead with 16 points. Jarreau poured in 14 points in the second half, including 10 of the Cougars’ final 11.
Sampson talked about building a consistently winning program that can be great every now and then.
He has turned Houston into good, with three consecutive 20-win seasons and its first NCAA Tournament victory in 34 years.
This team has a chance to be better than good.
These Cougars go hard.