Lone Star Mystery: Is Houston For Real?

-Jim Root

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a well-coached team from outside of the Power 6 has been running over its competition all season, and despite a lofty ranking, this squad is almost never on TV. This team earned some solid wins in the non-conference, and it’s been tearing through its decent-but-not-great league. It’s in line for a top 2 or 3 seed in March, but many are not taking it seriously or even writing it off entirely.

But wait – it’s not Gonzaga! Or even Nevada, for that matter! Okay fine, you knew that because you clicked on this article, but that’s beside the point.  Houston has little to no hype despite its tremendous season to this point, and much like the Zags every year, it seems like the Cougars are getting knocked a bit because of their conference affiliation. And so the question looming over this writing, and really, Houston’s entire season, is: how seriously should we take the Cougars?

Let’s start with the cut-and-dry facts. They’re 25-1, 12-1 in the American, featuring key wins against LSU, Cincinnati, and @UCF. They lack the *elite* wins of a traditional 1 or 2 seed, but the quantity of victories – they’re 10-0 in Q2 games, 14-1 vs Q1 and Q2 – is starting to outweigh that. Here’s a quick snapshot of their resume:

Of course, this isn’t a bracketology exercise. We want to know if these Cougars are, in fact, national title contenders. So how have they assembled such an impressive CV? Do they have the chops to play with the big boys?

Defensive Dominance

It all starts on the defensive end of the court, where Kelvin Sampson has constructed an impenetrable fortress around the paint, forcing opponents to consistently hit jumpers. The Cougars have some shot-blockers – they rotate four bigs with block rates of 4.9% or higher, including two above 12.5% (which would rank in the top 10 nationally) – but the heart of the paint protection is the scheme. It’s simply a no-fly zone: per Hoop-Math, Houston surrenders only 28.1% of opponent shots at the rim, the 19th-lowest figure in the country, a testament to just how focused the scheme is on walling off the lane. When someone does have access to the rim, the Cougar defense reacts quickly and completely - watch four players bolt to the rim to defend Cane Broome’s drive:

That obviously leaves them exposed to kickouts, and this is an overly extreme example (Brison Gresham is hilarious, the guy hunts blocked shots like the Trix rabbit searches for his cereal), but it clearly demonstrates how focused Houston is on taking away easy buckets.

You know what you’re getting with Houston’s D: no gimmicks, no zones, just straight man-to-man (99.9% of possessions, per Synergy), disciplined and physical at all times. They employ some pack line principles, such as pressuring the ball, sagging off when not guarding the ball, and sending frequent double-teams against post-ups. The paint-denying scheme is a solid foundation, but building that out into a nationally elite unit requires personnel willing to execute it at a high level.

Houston’s two 6’1 starting guards, seniors Galen Robinson and Corey Davis, clearly have taken Sampson’s teachings to heart. They set the tone on the perimeter with their quickness and dogged defending, making opposing ball-handlers uncomfortable as they wait for the rest of the offense to develop. Neither is exceptionally disruptive as far as creating steals (Robinson’s 2.5% steal rate ranks 366th nationally, Davis is at just 1.8%), but that’s not the objective. Instead, they serve as the pesky vanguard of a relentless unit, tracking cutters and icing wing ball screens with equal ferocity.

The execution of such a defense also requires pristine communication, particularly given the frequency of post doubles and the resulting rotations that must occur. Davis and Robinson take the lead there, as well, vocal presences who help direct traffic on the weak side. Watch Davis in the middle of the lane (under the basket) as the double-team happens (this is absolutely beautiful to a nerd like me):

He calls the coverage the second the double happens. Robinson needs no prompting, immediately rotating to the passer in the corner, and Davis sends the other weakside defender to the top of the key, with the result being a perfect trap.

Robinson and Davis are the defensive headliners, but there’s a third member of the starting backcourt: Armoni Brooks, a slightly longer junior wing. He completes the three-headed monster that has suffocated opposing lineups whenever it’s played as a unit:

That’s even more impressive given how many of those minutes are against opposing starters, ostensibly the foe’s most potent lineup. Davis and Robinson simply do not give an inch in the halfcourt, and the rest of the team feeds off their intensity.

Finding consistent ways to beat them is a challenge, but Cincinnati had some success by using the guards’ zeal against themselves. Here, at the top of the screen, Trevor Moore fakes like he’s going to run through the baseline to initiate a set, but he immediately bolts back behind the screener (Eliel Nsoseme). Nsoseme re-screens the scrambling Brooks, who was anticipating chasing Moore crosscourt, and the result is a wet bucket:

Keith Williams did the same thing to Corey Davis the very next time down the court, again on a call from the sideline (it’s in the mixer near the basket):

Although he missed, it was clearly something that the Bearcats were targeting against Houston’s aggressive man-to-man, attempting to weaponize that aggression against itself.

Additionally, Jarron Cumberland proved that size matters, as he was able to consistently shoot over the smaller Davis and Robinson. Not many teams have a power guard with the frame and shooting potency that Cumberland possesses, though. Houston’s halfcourt D – currently up in the 99th percentile stratosphere, per Synergy – will continue to be its bellwether, even when an opponent has a mismatch or two.

The last thing I want to mention on Houston’s defense relates to the scheme - as I said, they force jumpers as frequently as possible. But that isn’t to say they just let you shoot jumpers. Sampson has instilled in his team a fierce instinct to contest every jumper, flying by and getting a hand in the face on every attempt possible (see Davis in that second clip). Little things like this make the difference between surrendering a glut of made threes or disrupting focus just often enough to whittle that percentage down to a manageable level. Over the last four seasons, here’s Houston’s 3P% allowed (national rank out of 353 in paranthesis): 27.2 (3rd), 32.3 (31st), 32.9 (70th), 30.3 (9th). The consistently low number year after year evidences that it isn’t just luck - it’s quality defense.

Lineup Versatility

I won’t deep dive Houston’s offense for fear of this becoming a book instead of an article, but I do want to touch on one of the other advantages that the Cougars have, which is the versatility of its roster.

The starting five makes sense: a setup man and glove-like defender at point guard (Robinson), one of the country’s best high-volume shooters on the wing (Brooks), and a multi-dimensional offensive threat who can fill almost any role (Davis) in the backcourt, plus two burly bigs in the frontcourt who can defend and finish (Braeon Brady and Fabian White). But the bench lets Sampson go in a variety of different directions, largely thanks to three newcomers: freshmen Nate Hinton and Cedrick Alley (Alley actually started the season’s first 16 games) and UMass transfer DeJon Jarreau. All three are listed at 6’5, but they bring vastly different games to the table, and those varying skillsets complement each other perfectly.

Hinton is a big wing shooter who helps on the boards, a highly-touted recruit whose jumper has started to come around in conference play (36% from deep). Alley is burlier version of Hinton who plays more in the post, but he’s quietly emerging as a stretch four threat himself (also 36% in AAC play). And Jarreau is a total Swiss army knife, possessing point guard vision and tantalizing offensive potential all in a lithe, lanky frame. All three players can guard three or four positions with their respective strength and/or length, meaning Sampson can simply plug in the hot hand of the day.

Hinton and Alley’s shooting continuing to progress would be a huge boon, as the Cougars rely heavily on Brooks and Davis to carry the perimeter scoring load. That’s the largest concern with Houston, on the whole: the offense can stagnate when opponents hone in on Davis and Brooks, forcing the rest of the lineup - which is not flush with offensive prowess - to string together multiple possessions of shot creation. Jarreau looms large there, because he’s a former top 50ish recruit who can be legitimately electrifying at times (and short circuit the offense with his carelessness at others). Striking the balance with how to use Jarreau offensively is crucial: get him in transition or well-spaced pick-and-roll action (read: Davis and Brooks on the wings), and he can run the offense for extended stretches. He had his own mini run during the second half of the Cincinnati game (11 straight Cougar points) which showed what he’s capable of. Quite simply, not many players can execute this crossover and weak hand finish (against Nysier Brooks, an elite shot-blocker, no less):

Otherwise, the Cougars will end up relying too heavily on the solid but unspectacular Robinson to generate looks. That’s not a condemnation to failure in itself, but Houston’s ceiling probably involves Jarreau emerging into a major threat off the bench (as he was against Cincy).

Alright, So Where Does That Leave Us?

Reminder: we’re trying to determine how seriously to take Houston…

My answer is: pretty seriously, maybe not quite in the “national title” realm, but a run to the Final Four wouldn’t stun me. Teams that cannot hit outside shots are going to be driven mad trying to crack the Cougars’ tight defensive shell, and if Davis and Brooks are hot, they’ll string together 12-0 runs in a hurry. Houston’s talented backcourt and overall discipline make me think the Cougs won’t lose to a team that’s “worse” than them, unless said opponent is blazing hot from outside (unlikely given how well Houston challenges shots). Those same features give them a chance to upset a frustrated higher seed, as well. Eventually, though, I think the Cougars’ lack of true NBA-level talent (prove me wrong, Davis or Jarreau) and diversity of shooting on the roster (can the freshmen stay hot?) will be their undoing against one of the big boys.