Coming off an American Athletic Conference regular-season title and back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, Houston is looking to take the next step.
The Cougars ushered in a new era last December with the $60 million renovation to what is now called the Fertitta Center. The biggest news of the offseason was the decision by Kelvin Sampson to turn down overtures from Arkansas and sign a restructured six-year deal worth $18 million that is expected to keep the 63-year-old coach at the school for the remainder of his career. As part of the deal, the Cougars are casting an eye to the future, naming top assistant Kellen Sampson the head coach-in-waiting.
For now, Sampson must replace four starters off last year’s 33-win Sweet 16 squad. His message, however, is loud and clear: “We can win a championship at Houston.”
Houston Basketball At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Kelvin Sampson
2018-19 RECORD (AAC): 33-4 (16-2)
2018-19 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Kentucky 62-58 in the Sweet 16
F Breaon Brady (6.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
G Armoni Brooks (13.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg)
G Corey Davis Jr. (17.0 ppg, 2.8 apg)
G Galen Robinson Jr. (8.0 ppg, 4.9 apg)
For the first time in Sampson’s six seasons, the frontcourt might be the strength. With the graduation of two-year starter Breaon Brady, the Cougars will turn to 6'8" junior Brison Gresham and 6'10" senior Chris Harris Jr. at center. Together, the duo blocked 75 shots last season.
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At forward, the Cougars return a pair of players with starting experience: Cedrick Alley Jr. and Fabian White Jr. Alley showed his range with 31 3-pointers, third most on the team, and averaged nearly 18 minutes per game. White missed the first five games of the season while recovering from a broken foot suffered in the offseason. He moved into the starting lineup almost immediately and averaged 6.3 points and 4.0 rebounds.
Justin Gorham sat out last season following a transfer from Towson, where he averaged nearly 10 points per game as a sophomore. Sampson says the 6'7", 235-pound Gorham is the “prototypical 4 man” and has proven to be one of the top 3-point shooters on the team.
J’Wan Roberts can rebound, block shots and has that “wow factor,” Sampson says.
Houston must replace the entire backcourt of Galen Robinson Jr., Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks. Davis and Brooks combined for 232 3-pointers, while Robinson was a speedy point guard and defensive whiz who finished his four-year career No. 2 in wins (103) in school history.
Brooks was a surprising offseason departure, opting to enter the NBA Draft (he was not selected) instead of returning for his senior season.
DeJon Jarreau saw extensive playing time last season and showed flashes at times. He is the top returning scorer with 8.7 points per game. Nate Hinton, a 6'5" shooting guard named to the AAC All-Freshman Team, is expected to compete for a starting job.
The X-factor could be Quentin Grimes, a former McDonald’s All-American who started all 36 games for Kansas as a freshman. If the 6'5" Grimes receives a waiver to play immediately, he provides the Cougars with a legitimate scorer who can handle all three guard spots.
Caleb Mills, a redshirt freshman combo guard, will make his debut and should provide another scoring option. Sampson says Mills is the best offensive player he has recruited since arriving at Houston.
Another newcomer who should see immediate playing time is freshman Marcus Sasser. He’s a two-way player with a college-ready frame.
Houston’s length on the perimeter should allow Sampson to be more diverse on the defensive end after playing strictly man-to-man the last two seasons.
It will be tough to duplicate last year’s success, but the bar has been set. Now the Cougars are a perennial top-25 program and AAC challenger and should make a third straight NCAA appearance for the first time since the Phi Slama Jama days in the 1980s. While the faces change, expect the same Sampson-coached team built on discipline, defense and rebounding.
Postseason Prediction: Round of 32
AAC Prediction: 2nd