Key Returners: DeJon Jarreau, Nate Hinton, Cedrick Alley, Fabian White
Key Losses: Corey Davis, Galen Robinson, Armoni Brooks (pro)
Key Newcomers: Justin Gorham (Towson), Caleb Mills (redshirt), J’Wan Roberts, Marcus Sasser
*** - Grimes has applied for a waiver for immediate eligiblity. Given concerns around KU being hit with sanctions and Grimes moving closer to home, it seems he may get it. If he is ruled eligible, he’ll step into the starting lineup for Mills and immediately bolster the wing rotation. As poor as he was at Kansas, he will get to run the show at times with Jarreau on the bench (where he may be more comfortable) and should be a useful defender as another long wing. Sampson & Co. will need to help sort out his shooting, though. With Grimes, Houston moves up (particularly for the other two guys - I’m already quite high).
Outlook: Our newest preview takes us to H-Town, where the Kelvin Sampson rejuvenation continues, elevating a level last year with a Sweet 16 appearance and the opening of the newly-renovated Fertitta Center on campus. Sampson leveraged that success into an extension and a promotion for his son, as Kellen was named “head coach in waiting” following Papa Kelvin’s flirtation with Arkansas. That means the staff that has engineered a top 15 defense for two straight years is back intact, so despite the loss of the starting backcourt, we don’t anticipate the Cougars freefalling out of relevance.
That defense is the core of Houston’s success, a suffocating man-to-man that pressures the ball while walling off the paint to would-be penetrators. It’s a team-centric scheme, one that turns good defenders into great ones so long as the collective understands the goals of the rotations. At its best, Houston simply takes everything away with its coordinated movements on and off the ball, forcing long possessions where the ball rarely, if ever, enters the lane:
The Cougars are also relentless physically, and Sampson’s deep stable of capable post players often allows them to wear down opponents over the course of the game. To that end, all of Cedrick Alley, Brison Gresham, Fabian White, Chris Harris, and Justin Gorham will rotate minutes. Alley is a ‘tweener who spent most of his minutes at the four last year; that may change this year based on the team’s roster composition. Gresham, meanwhile, is a gazelle who chases blocked shots all over the court; that obviously doesn’t fit the Sampson “disciplined” mold, but he’s a heck of an athlete and shot-swatter (11.7% block rate, would be top 15 nationally if he played more minutes). His wild swings often results in foul issues, but he and Alley were the team’s most-used returning duo in the post, and they were highly effective together:
White is the most prominent returner up front (21 starts), and he represents exactly what Sampson looks for in his bigs: strength, awareness on defense, and a “chip on his shoulder” attitude that enables him to battle on the glass on both ends. Gorham also fits that bill, coming from Coach Pat Skerry’s system at Towson that attacks the offensive glass maniacally; he’ll be raring to be unleashed from his year of redshirting. Harris is the biggest of the bunch and must be used sparingly due to his propensity to commit fouls and harm innocent spectators with his loose cannon free throw shooting (went just 6/29, 21%, from the line last year).
An advantage this year’s defense will have is a considerable increase in backcourt size. Both senior starters, Corey Davis and Galen Robinson, stood 6’1 last year, and Armoni Brooks wasn’t much bigger on the wing at 6’3. This year, all three of those spots could be manned by 6’5 guys: DeJon Jarreau (thin but extremely lanky), Nate Hinton, and Alley (built like a linebacker) or the waiver-hopeful Quentin Grimes. With Alley likely spending some time up front, 6’3 redshirt freshman Caleb Mills will get a lot of minutes, and incoming freshman Marcus Sasser has the type of disruptive anticipation that can give opposing guards nightmares. That group may not be as fluent in Sampson’s schemes as the experienced departures, but their added length and physical stature can help offset that loss. Plus, I would not bet against Sampson whipping them into shape; the man can coach defense.
Offensively, a significant burden will fall to Jarreau, a former top 50 recruit who is often equal parts erratic and brilliant. He’s a tremendous driver, and his length and quickness make him a matchup problem for the smaller defenders that opponents have to throw at him. When locked in, he can take over a game (he had huge bursts at Cincinnati and against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament), so he just needs to find more consistency and take better care of the ball. When Jarreau was the primary ball-handler last year (playing without Robinson), the Houston offense scored 1.11 points per possession, compared to 1.04ppp in all other situations. Clearly, Jarreau is a crucial piece.
Perhaps an even larger question offensively will be perimeter shooting, where the loss of Davis and Brooks robs the lineup of a staggering 232 made threes. Hinton is a popular breakout pick, and the former top 100 recruit flashed his offensive upside as a big wing who can drive and shoot from deep. Mills may be the key, though, as a smooth combo guard who impressed in practice last year after enrolling at the semester break. If Grimes is ruled eligible immediately, he has the talent/pedigree to be a major contributor - we await our NCAA overlords for a decision.
Given those backcourt questions, the rock of the Cougar offense will be its ferocity on the glass. White, Gresham, and Harris all grabbed more than 10% of available offensive rebounds when on the floor, and Gorham is a near-certainty to post similar numbers. But as UCF, Cincinnati, and Kentucky showed late last year, opponents that can “out-tough” Houston (or at least match the physicality) and take away put-backs and open kick-out threes will frustrate the Cougars.
Bottom Line: Brooks’s unexpected departure put a dent in the Cougars’ ceiling, and unless the NCAA grants the waiver for Grimes, Houston’s perimeter depth is dangerously thin. Sampson’s proven ability to orchestrate a terrific defense keeps the floor relatively high, though, particularly with the length and bulk that this roster features. They don’t have the raw talent of Memphis or the star power of Cincy’s Jarron Cumberland, but the Cougars will likely be in the mix at the top of the American all the same, aiming for a third straight tournament berth in the process.