Confirmation for Houston coach Kelvin Sampson that his program is restoring its prominence nationally is the fact the No. 25 Cougars now have been nationally ranked for three consecutive seasons.
Saturday’s upset victory at then-No. 16 Wichita State, forcing the Shockers to miss 18 straight shots in one 13-minute stretch, has placed the Cougars (14-4, 4-1 American Athletic Conference) into the rankings for the first time since the final poll last season.
Sampson, who commented that his players “played like grown men,” in the win over Wichita State, believes the Cougars are still in the maturation process, which will lead toward a higher ranking and a deeper run in the NCAA tournament.
“That means we’ve done it three straight years,” Sampson told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s pretty cool. I remember where we started, so I don’t brush it off, but I don’t dwell on it, either. I don’t even remember if I mentioned it to the team. Our focus is on Connecticut on Thursday.”
Houston has won 12 of its last 14 games and is tied with Tulsa for first in the AAC. UConn (10-7, 1-3) visits Thursday after losing in a nonconference game at No. 9 Villanova on Saturday.
“Basketball season, you can’t let it be an escalator,” said Sampson, who had to replace four starters from last year’s team that advanced to the Sweet 16. “You can’t be going up and down. You’ve got to keep getting better, and that’s all I’ve tried to focus on since Day 1. I don’t dwell on the losses. I just focus on how we are playing and make sure we are getting better.”
Shortly after limiting Wichita State to a season-low 30.4 percent shooting from the field in the 65-54 win, Sampson wrote on the board in the locker room: “UConn … Thursday … 8 o’clock.” He said he “already moved on.”
Only two of Sampson’s players — Nate Hinton and Fabian White Jr. — have played in all 18 games as he has coached through injuries while experimenting with player combinations. Hinton averages 11.6 points and 9.7 rebounds a game and is the Cougars’ top 3-point shooter at 40.5 percent. White is at 10.9 points and 5.7 rebounds a game.
Quentin Grimes leads the Cougars with 12.8 points per game but has struggled from beyond the arc at 29.3 percent.
UConn showed improvement in its 61-55 loss at Villanova after losing by 23 points to the Wildcats last year and by 20 the year before.
“I saw a lot of growth since the last time we saw these guys,” said UConn coach Dan Hurley, whose team has lost four games by six points or fewer, including two games in double overtime. “But it’s a frustrated locker room because that game was on the table for us.”
UConn outscored Villanova 36-12 in the paint and outrebounded the Wildcats 35-23 but Villanova hit 11 three-pointers and scored 23 points off Huskies turnovers.
Senior Christian Vital led the Huskies with 13 points and led all rebounders with eight, while junior Josh Carlton had 12 points, and redshirt junior Alterique Gilbert had 12 points and five assists.
–Field Level Media