The Houston Cougar men's basketball team's season ended in a rather fitting fashion, in the sense that there were plenty of targets at which to point fingers. The Cougars led UTEP for the majority of the second half, never trailing during the period. But they couldn't finish down the stretch, their defensive intensity lacking during key possessions, most notably allowing the MIners' last shot in regulation to be a game-tying lay-up. By the time overtime came around, the momentum was too much in UTEP's favor, the young Cougars too rattled.
James Dickey has now completed his second year at the helm of the Cougar program. Both years ended with losing records against Division 1 opponents, losing records in Conference USA play, and first-round exits in the conference tournament.
Now, one could go around in circles arguing about where the blame lies in Houston's two disappointing seasons. (My four favorite finger-pointing targets are coach DIckey not coaching up the players sufficiently, the players not buying in and playing with enough focus and intensity, injuries decimating the roster, and inexperience preventing the team to playing up to its potential. Not necessarily in that order.) But one thing is immensely clear: with only one year left of Conference USA competition before moving up to the Big East, vast improvement needs to happen, on a time frame of right now.
So it's up to the entire basketball program, from athletics director Mack Rhoades down to the student trainers, to figure out the answers to these questions:
Who is playing point guard?
Redshirt freshman Joseph Young got a look at the point, freshman J.J. Thompson saw the most time there, and even walk-on Jimmie Jones got a shot. Quite often, it wasn't clear to the untrained eye who exactly was playing point guard for the Cougars. Unsurprisingly, the team struggled with its half-court offense. Offensive fast breaks were also often not as well-executed as they could have been with a skilled ball-handler and distributor behind the wheel. And the Cougars ranked dead last in Conference USA in turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio, as teams without point guards are wont to do.
As of now, Houston's recruiting class doesn't provide any more depth at the position. So the Cougars will either have to find a Division 1 talent at the 1-guard who is still available this late in the game, or develop the talent they have. That could mean more of Young (1.3-1 assist-turnover ratio) and Thompson (1.2-1 ratio) at point guard. Coaching up talent hasn't proven to be Dickey's strong suit as of yet, so we'll see how he and his staff do at this critical position.
Where is the defensive intensity?
The Cougars were the worst defensive team in Conference USA this year. Their 72.1 points allowed per conference game was 4 points worse than 11th place ECU. Their field goal percentage defense ranked 10th, their 3-point defense ranked 7th, and they forced the conference's fewest turnovers.
An argument could be made that since the rotation was down to seven or eight players, and those seven or eight players knew that they were getting their minutes, basically regardless of how they played, that Dickey couldn't afford to sub out players who weren't giving 100% on the defensive end. Then again, a plausible argument could be made that Dickey isn't a very good defensive coach. But I'd rather not believe that to be the case.
With the further maturation of freshman TaShawn Thomas (who led the team with 64 blocks, including a C-USA 5th-best mark of 26 during conference play), the addition of another big body inside in 6'10" highly-touted recruit Chicken Knowles, and a deeper bench available to Dickey, look for Houston's defensive numbers to be markedly improved in 2012-13.
Where are the crunch-time shots coming from?
On paper, Houston's offense wasn't bad this year. The Coogs finished 5th in conference play with 65.5 points per game, and shot a respectable 46.4% from the field as a team overall. But Houston also failed to break 60 points six times during conference play, as prepared defenses who were able to keep the Cougars from running the floor were able to make Dickey's offense predictable and ineffective. Too often in key moments of big games, the offense was three players (including the ball-handler) standing still, while one screener set one screen for one cutter, and everyone in the building stared them down. The Cougar offense was too reliant on making the best of broken plays, and using athleticism in the open court. Those are absolutely positive things to be able to do, but they don't make up an entire offensive game plan.
The lack of a reliable offensive strategy, or a player talented enough to create his own shot, is a big reason why Houston lost five games in a six-game span early on (all by five losses coming by five points or less, as the offense stalled down the stretch), setting a negative tone for the season after an exciting start. It's a big reason why the Cougars lost big second-half leads to Marshall, Rice and UTEP towards the end of the season. (Only being able to scratch out a win after the deficit evaporated in one of those situations.)
Young has the kind of raw offensive talent that could make one believe that another year of adjusting to the college game could make him a big-time, crunch-time scorer. All-everything recruit Danuel House has that kind of talent, as well. But unless Dickey can effectively preach an offense that involves more than one person moving at a time, it may not matter.
Will another year of experience mean increased consistency?
Perhaps more frustrating than a rebuilding year, is a year when you see enough flashes of greatness from a team that you know that they're losing games to less-talented squads. Like watching a talented singer or actor throw away their talents on drugs and alcohol, watching a basketball team capable of knocking off Arkansas on the road (the Razorbacks opened the season 17-1 at home, with the Coogs being the sole loss) and playing such sublime stretches of basketball, turn around and lose to teams like Texas State, SMU and Tulane makes one more sad than it does angry.
For a game at a time, the Cougars could look like they had the turnover bug squashed. They could look like a dominant rebounding team. They could look like they knew how to defend screens. But these positives never lasted for very long.
Yes, despite their losing record, the 2011-12 Houston Cougars sometimes looked like a top-25 caliber team. And even if it wasn't for an entire game at a time, they frequently put together 5-10 minute runs of inspired basketball, enough to let you know that they were capable of greatness, but unable to sustain it.
Losing only one player to graduation, and bringing in two top-tier talents in House and Knowles, (as well as the availability of big-bodied Pitt transfer J.J. Richardson), there literally is no ceiling for what next year's team could accomplish.
And that's what would make it so frustrating if they fail.