The Houston Cougars don’t have a problem this offseason as they make the move to the Big 12.
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Houston basketball is in the big leagues now, but they’ve been playing at a big league level for a while. Kelvin Sampson’s group brings physicality and maturity to the court, and their goal is always to make their opponent’s next 40 minutes absolute hell on Earth. Only two programs have made the Sweet Sixteen in each of the past four tournaments. Those teams? Gonzaga and Houston.
Last year might not have been his best Houston team yet, (2020-21 probably takes the cake) but it was the most Houston team yet. The most Sampson-esque Cougar team yet. They had Jarace Walker, the ultimate Kelvin Sampson recruit, along with Marcus Sasser, Tramon Mark, Jamal Shead, and J’Wan Roberts, 5 double-digit scorers in all. After cruising through their first nine games of the season and earning the No. 1 spot in the AP poll, (minus a poor showing against Kent State) the Cougars lost to Alabama at the Fertitta Center, then proceeded to reel off another 9-game winning streak (including a win over No. 2 Virginia) before losing a 56-55 shocker in-conference to Temple to move to 18-2, also at the Fertitta Center.
Surprise, surprise, but the Cougars went on another winning streak, winning 13 in a row (including two wins over Memphis) before losing on Selection Sunday to Penny Hardaway’s Tigers. The third time might really be a charm. Houston was granted a 1 seed for their performance throughout the season, and were a popular champion pick entering March Madness, partially due to the fact that the Final Four was being held in Houston. The Cougars drew Northern Kentucky in the first round, and while they struggled to pull away, they eventually won by double digits. Up next was Auburn, which proved to be a bit more of a challenge. That was until the second half, of course. After trailing 41-31 at halftime, the Cougars put together a classic performance in the second, out-scoring the Tigers by 27 points in 20 minutes to win 81-64. Sasser and Mark combined for 48 as Houston advanced to their 4th Final Four.
Once they got there, though, they met one of the best teams at the worst time. The Miami Hurricanes had a better shooting day from deep (44.0%) than the Cougars did from the field overall (37.5%). Even a Jarace Walker double-double couldn’t save Houston as they gave up the most points of their season in the last contest of the year in the 89-75 loss.
While a 4th consecutive Sweet Sixteen is quite the accomplishment, there was a feeling around the program and national media that last year’s team was going to be the Cougars to break through and maybe win a title for the first time ever. (The Cougs have made 6 Final Fours and 2 NCAA Championship games but have never hoisted the trophy.) Seeing that dream end so quickly in just 40 minutes against Miami could’ve thrown a cloud over the program, but Houston’s problem simply turns to bulletin board material this offseason. Though losing Tramon Mark to the portal stings, this team is solid, and they’re ready to pick up right where they left off.
Three starters depart – the aforementioned Mark along with Sasser (Detroit Pistons) and Walker (Indiana Pacers). However, two very important pieces return, those being lead guard Jamal Shead and forward J’Wan Roberts, both seniors in their 4th years in the program. While Sasser is a big loss, Sampson brought in arguably the most talented guard in the portal to take his place at the 2, LJ Cryer from Baylor. Roberts will likely be joined by Ja’Vier Francis in the starting frontcourt rotation, while Temple transfer Damian Dunn and returnee Terrence Arceneaux could battle for the final spot in the starting lineup.
The bench is deep, possibly more so than last year’s squad. Rotational guards Emanuel Sharp and Ramon Walker Jr. return, and Sharp could be posed for a bit of a breakout. Guard Mylik Wilson transferred in from Texas Tech prior to last season but redshirted, making this year his first seeing game action for Houston. Freshman Kordelius Jefferson, a 3-star recruit, could see action as well.
The frontcourt rotation isn’t as deep, but freshman Joseph Tugler is flying under the radar. Though ranked as the No. 69 recruit in this year’s cycle, the 6-7 forward has all the skills to flourish in Houston’s system. He’s from the city of Houston, and he’ll almost certainly be the first big off the bench, maybe even 6th man. The Cougars won’t miss a step with him on the court. Look for him to average at least 15+ MPG as a freshman providing a boost off the bench for the Cougs. He’s got the skill set to be a NBA small forward sooner rather than later. In terms of recruit-to-program fit, Tugler to Houston is my favorite this cycle. He’s an absolute gem. Two more bigs will likely see rotational minutes, those being redshirt freshman Cedric Lath and freshman Jacob McFarland. Though not as skilled as Tugler, they do have a height advantage at 6-9 and 6-11, respectively. Whenever Sampson needs a tall interior presence when Ja’Vier Francis isn’t on the court, he could turn to Lath or McFarland.
Overall, this team doesn’t have a talent like Jarace Walker this year, but that’s okay, really. The Cougars are deep, and anyone concerned about the new roles of Arceneaux and Francis shouldn’t be. Though he saw just 13.9 MPG last season, Arceneaux is an NBA talent, believe me. He will play in the league sooner rather than later, maybe after this season, if he improves the way many think he will. Though some may think of Francis as undersized for a center, he’s not. Sure, he’s 6-8, but his wingspan is 7-5. Good luck going up against that near the rim. (Although he didn’t play enough minutes to qualify, his block percentage was 14.6%, higher than Dereck Lively II, Johni Broome, and Colin Castleton. The Cougars will be just fine.
The non-conference schedule isn’t particularly tough, with games against Xavier and Texas A&M the only real contests on the docket. Now, though, with the Cougars in the Big 12, they’ll have plenty of opportunities for Quad 1 wins in conference games instead of having to load up high-tier opponents in November and December.
Is this team better than last year? Likely not, but they’re certainly on the same tier, and that’s saying something. These Cougars can definitely win a title, and they’re a top 3 team in the best conference in the country. If there are concerns, they’d be centered around Cryer’s defense, the expanded roles of Francis and Arceneaux, and the transition from AAC to Big 12, not just for the team but also for transfer Damian Dunn. There is a high likelihood that the Cougars answer all three questions quite easily. After all, they’re already typically the most physical team in the country, and they’ve beaten teams like Virginia, Illinois, Auburn, and Arizona in recent years. The step-up in competition for the Cougs won’t be an issue. They’re ranked No. 7 in the first AP Poll for a reason. This might be the best defensive starting five in the country. Anywhere between 21-10 and 25-6 is a likely regular season record for Houston. Look out, Big 12, the Cougs have arrived, and they’re at the top already.
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Head coach: Kelvin Sampson (35th season, 10th at Houston)
2022-23 record: 33-4 (17-1)
2023 postseason finish: Lost to Miami, 89-75, in NCAA Tournament Sweet 16
Notable departures: Jarace Walker (Indiana Pacers), Marcus Sasser (Detroit Pistons), Tramon Mark (Transferred to Arkansas)
Notable non-conference games: vs. Utah OR Wake Forest (Nov. 17, in Charleston), Charleston Classic (Nov. 19), at Xavier (Dec. 1), vs. Texas A&M (Dec. 16)
PG: Jamal Shead (6-1, 200, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 10.5 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.0 RPG, 1.7 SPG
SG: LJ Cryer (6-1, 200, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 15.0 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 2.0 APG, 41.5 3P% (Baylor)
G/F: Terrance Arceneaux (6-6, 205, So.)
2022-23 stats: 3.7 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 0.6 APG
PF: J’Wan Roberts (6-7, 235, R-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 10.0 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.2 APG, 61.2 FG%
C: Ja’Vier Francis (6-8, 240, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 4.3 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.2 APG, 1.1 BPG
6: Damian Dunn (6-5, 205, Gr.)
2022-23 stats: 15.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.0 APG (Temple)
7: Joseph Tugler (6-7, 230, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 69 rated recruit
8: Emanuel Sharp (6-3, 205, Rs.-So.)
2022-23 stats: 5.9 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 0.5 APG
9: Ramon Walker Jr. (6-4, 210, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 2.9 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 0.4 APG
10: Mylik Wilson (6-2, 175, Rs.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: DNP
2021-22 stats: 2.5 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 1.7 APG (Texas Tech)
11: Cedric Lath (6-9, 265, R-Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 221 rated recruit (Class of 2022)
12: Kordelius Jefferson (6-3, 200, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 154 rated recruit
13: Jacob McFarland (6-11, 210, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 109 rated recruit
Houston Cougars MVP: LJ Cryer
Cryer, technically an in-conference transfer since Houston now finds themselves in the Big 12, makes his way over from Baylor. He’s a tremendous offensive talent (15.0 PPG on 41.5% from deep) and even Marcus Sasser wasn’t the threat from the perimeter that Cryer is. In that same vein, Cryer isn’t the defensive stalwart that Sasser was. There are tradeoffs to every move in college basketball.
Offensively, however, Cryer is of course a humongous difference-maker for Houston. All the offense that was vacated by Sasser’s departure is now completely filled. Cryer led the Big 12 in 3P% last year, and unlike the rest of the Houston roster, he won’t have to adjust to being in the Big 12, as he’s already gone through that gauntlet three times. Cryer’s an elite shooter and takes care of the ball, too, posting a turnover percentage of just 11.1%.
Getting the ball from an elite distributor such as Shead should only make Cryer’s game better. He was a huge part of Baylor’s elite offense last year, and he’ll help Houston transform their own offense into a better version of what they were last year. Sampson knows that defense alone can’t win a team a championship, and bringing in Cryer to fuel the offense was just such an important move in the offseason.
The lack of defense is a caveat, and Cryer isn’t the biggest guard at just 6-1 playing the 2 spot. However, defense is much more important in this scheme than last year’s Baylor team. If Cryer is asked to put more of an emphasis on his defense, that might be all it takes for him to improve on it. Especially surrounded by such defensive talent as Shead, Arceneaux, Francis, and Roberts, Cryer can take his defense up a notch in Sampson’s system. Iron sharpens iron.
But whatever his defensive shortcomings may be, his offensive production makes up for it and more. Cryer is one of the best offensive threats not only in the Big 12, but the entirety of Division 1. From day one in Houston, he’ll generate waves.
Houston Cougars make-or-break player: Jamal Shead
Shead returns as the lead point from last season’s Sweet Sixteen squad. He’s a veteran leader who can bring this team back to the Sweet Sixteen or even better. Now entering his 4th year in Kelvin Sampson’s system, Shead might be the most important player on the team. Houston’s defense is always going to be stout, (save for 40 minutes against Miami) but coupling that with an above-average offense is what’s going to give the Cougs legitimate championship hopes.
Shead averaged 5.8 APG his sophomore year and followed that up with 5.4 APG this past season, placing 1st and 2nd in the AAC, respectively. His career assist percentage of 31.0% is the 5th-highest mark in the AAC over the past 11 seasons in the conference, and he’s collected 200+ assists in each of the past 2 seasons.
Believe it or not, however, the best part of his game might be on the defensive end. Shead was named the 2022-23 AAC defensive player of the year, and he’ll immediately be one of the top perimeter defenders in all of the Big 12. Shead led the conference in defensive win shares last year with 2.9, a mark that was good for 5th nationwide out of thousands of players. An analytic darling on the defensive side, his box plus/minus of 4.2 was 3rd in the AAC, behind just fellow Cougars Jarace Walker and Marcus Sasser.
Along with top 20 finishes in-conference in both offensive and defensive ratings, Shead also paced the AAC in minutes played. Sometimes, the best ability is availability, and Shead is a regular ironman on the court. This year, expect Shead to be counted upon to once again be a veteran floor general on offense and a brick wall along the perimeter on defense. Unlike the other four positions on the floor, there’s not a surefire replacement for Shead if he were to miss time. He’s the embodiment of Kelvin Sampson basketball on this roster, and he’s just so integral to this team’s hopes. The ceiling is sky-high as long as Shead is at the 1.
Key analytic: Turnovers per game
The Cougars took care of the ball last year, ranking 16th in the country with just 10.0 TOPG. Most of the burden of keeping that number low will fall on the primary ball-handler, Shead, but other members of the backcourt will have to do their part. Out of five Cougar guards who played 300+ minutes last year, Shead had the highest TO% of the group at 16.5%. Of course, playing point guard had something to do with that.
The two guards with the lowest turnover percentages, however, with 10.1% and 10.7%, respectively, were Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, both of whom are no longer on the roster. Arceneaux and Sharp weren’t far behind at 11.8% and 12.7%, but new transfer Dunn will have to work on his ball control before the season kicks off. The Temple addition’s TO rate last year of 17.2% was the highest out of this year’s Houston guard room. However, former Baylor Bear LJ Cryer will likely help keep the ball in Cougar paws this year, as his turnover rate of 11.1% is the lowest of all Houston guards.
Keeping care of the ball on offense is a necessity for a Kelvin Sampson offense, and this is why Arceneaux will get the start at the hybrid 3 over Dunn. The addition of Cryer to replace Sasser won’t result in too much drop-off in the turnover department, as Cryer is more than capable of limiting his mistakes. Shead of course is going to commit turnovers just from the sheer volume of passes he makes, but his 2.6/1 assist to turnover ratio last year will be plenty good enough.
In the frontcourt, of the four Cougs that played 300+ minutes, the two that returned, J’Wan Roberts and Ja’Vier Francis, had the lowest turnover percentages. Roberts’s was solid at just 11.6%, but Francis’s mark was even better at 8.5%. New freshman Joseph Tugler is capable of limiting mistakes on the offensive end, which bodes well for the fortunes of this forward/center group.
Overall, this roster combination looks like a very likely bet to be one of the best in the country again when it comes to taking care of the ball. Even with the losses of Sasser and Mark, coach Sampson has brought in capable ball-handlers while retaining several already on the roster. It’s very possible that Houston finishes this season with less than 10 TOPG, and if they don’t, they’ll still end up around 10.0-11.0 per game, placing them in the 15-50 range in that stat category. Despite the losses of two phenomenal ball-handlers, Houston will still land amongst the upper echelons regarding taking care of the ball on offense.
Houston Cougars 2023-24 projections
Projected conference finish: 3rd in Big 12
Projected postseason ceiling: NCAA Tournament Champions