That was the final as the Houston Cougars dropped last year's regular season finale to lowly Tulane. It was just the third conference win for the Green Wave, and eighth win of the season. The loss dropped the Coogs to .500 overall, and sealed a sub-.500 record in Conference USA play. It seemed a fittingly pitiful end to a season that failed to live up to expectations that couldn't be lowered quickly enough. The conference tournament still loomed, but it meant little. There were six teams ahead of the Cougars in the standings, and it seemed every team in the conference was playing better basketball.
Then Houston traveled up to Tulsa for the conference tournament, and proceeded to shock even their most optimistic fans, winning four games in four days, knocking off perennial power Memphis in the second round, and stunning #25 UTEP in the championship game.
If the Cougars can compete near the top of Conference USA in the 2010-11 season, it might be an even bigger surprise. After all, the team loses the nation's leading scorer in Aubrey Coleman, as well as the team's second-leading scorer and three-year starter Kelvin Lewis. For good measure, point guard Desmond Wade, third behind Coleman and Lewis in minutes played, and team leader in assists, transferred in the off-season.
Perhaps an even bigger story than the personnel changes on the court are the question marks off of it. When Tom Penders took over the Cougar program, he brought immediate respectability to a program in disarray. But fans quickly grew disenchanted with Penders, who failed to get the team to the next level, who failed to effectively recruit the Houston area, and under whom team discipline often seemed in short supply.
Even after the Coogs' miracle, four-day run, which ended the school's NCAA tournament drought, Penders chose to walk away from a program that would likely have fired him. Athletics Director Mack Rhoades made the initially unpopular decision of hiring James Dickey, seen as something of a retread, over some "sexier" candidates. Dickey's winning demeanor, some early recruiting victories, and promises that defense and shot selection will improve, have won over many of the faithful.
Perhaps the two most important, remaining concerns, especially in the light of the team's unimpressive exhibition win over Division II Abilene Christian, are rebounding and ball control. Rebounding has been a weakness for Houston for some time, and Saturday's contest was less than reassuring in that category. Ball control was a hallmark of Penders' teams, and a drop from the ranks of the nation's leaders in that category could cancel out the Cougars potentially shooting for a higher percentage from the floor.
Another significant question mark is whether or not the fans will show up this season. While the Cougar football team is busy selling out games, the basketball team saw its attendance drop under 3,000 per game for just the fourth time since Hofheinz Pavilion opened in 1969. Has Dickey won over enough fans that the attendance will look respectable?
With a watered-down schedule, a number of underclassmen on the roster, a first year head coach, and all-everything recruit Joseph Young not eligible this year, it looks like the Cougars are still a year or two away. Those are the facts. On the other hand is a theory, put forward most famously by ESPN writer Bill Simmons, better known as the Sports Guy. It's called the Ewing Theory, based on the career of Georgetown and New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing. As the theory goes, every time Ewing missed time due to injury, the consensus would be that his teams were bound to begin losing, but it never happened. Maybe Ewing just wasn't as good as most people thought, maybe his disappearance just allowed other players to step up. But the Ewing Theory has been applied by Simmons to teams at every level of every sport.
Simmons' two ingredients for an Ewing Theory occurrence are as follows:
- A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
- That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) -- and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.
Do the Cougars qualify? Sure, Aubrey Coleman led the team to the NCAA tournament, but that four-day run followed a season of disappointment. If Penders did anything to inhibit Coleman's quick trigger on offense, specifically his tendency to shoot three-pointers (not the most effective weapon in his arsenal), it wasn't apparent. Already last season, the team showed signs that it could succeed with AC taking a lesser role. Coleman averaged less than 19 shots in Cougar victories, and over 22.5 in Cougar defeats. When he took 24 shots or more, the team went 2-7, and when he took 17 or less, the team went 7-2. Now, correlation doesn't always imply causation, but it does give some indication that the Cougars may be Ewing Theory candidates.
A number of players will have to step up. Point guard Zamal Nixon, the only fourth-year senior on the squad, has seen his production stay roughly the same over his first three years with the Cougars. He showed some flashes of stepping up his game during the conference and NCAA tournaments, and that will have to turn into more consistent production. Splitting time with Nixon at the point will be newcomer Trumaine Johnson, who previously spent two years with the University of San Diego. As a sophomore, Johnson averaged double figures in scoring.
On the wing, senior Adam Brown showed a scoring touch last year coming off the bench for Coleman, and may be the primary beneficiary of Coleman's departure. Junior college transfer Darian Thibodeaux has drawn early positive reviews for his pressure defense and shooting touch. Sophomore Kirk Van Slyke is one of the team's tallest players at 6'9", but has a game best suited to the perimeter. He had trouble producing consistently as a freshman, but a year of growth may do him good. The same could be said about diminutive sophomore and former Louisiana 5-A high school player of the year Nick Haywood.
Senior Maurice McNeil is the team's leading returning scorer (8.1 points per game) and rebounder (7.4). He could benefit from Dickey's overtures that the Cougars will look to work the ball into the post more frequently on offense than was the case under the previous regime. Sophomore Kendrick Washington lacks ideal height to play under the basket, but has a big body, an active, physical game, and could benefit from being healthy all year, something that was not the case during his freshman campaign.
Freshman forward Alandise Harris was a three-time all-Arkansas selection in high school, and freshman Mikhail McLean has both size (6'8") and speed (member of his high school's track team).
While I have nothing more concrete to base this on than a sportswriter's theory, and despite the exhibition result, I actually think this year's Cougar team will be more competitive than most expect. There's some promising talent on this team, and I think that not relying on one or two players for a team's entire offensive output will allow that talent to prove itself. This may not be an NCAA tournament team just yet, but I like Houston's odds to win 20 games against a weak schedule.
Hopefully I'm not the only one in Hofheinz Pavilion eager to see whether or not I'm right.