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Could Houston be America's best college hoops team?

The buzz is real around the Cougars with November looming. Just how good can they be? PIC: Houston Chronicle Staff Photo

No matter what their record showed, make no mistake: last season started off on the wrong foot for the Houston Cougars.

Sure, they went 8-2 to start the year, but it was laden with hardships out of the gate. They were taken to overtime by a far less superior Hofstra team on their own court. They took a loss to Wisconsin in a game far less competitive than the 65-63 final score suggests. And, after a meaningless 80-47 win over Texas State, the Cougars lost its prized possession, Marcus Sasser, and Traman Mark - both poised to have big years.

So naturally, Houston must fold and work on recruiting for next year, right?

You’re mistaken.

Instead, it was business as usual for Houston, who didn’t take home a single loss in all of January, before losing back-to-back contests against red-hot teams in SMU and Memphis. They won the American’s regular season title and its conference tournaments, was picked as a five seed in the NCAA tournament, and busted a fair share of brackets who had Tommy Lloyd’s Arizona Wildcats making a run with hopes of a “Master vs. Apprentice” showdown with his old boss at Gonzaga, Mark Few.

Houston waited for no one to continue their winning ways. They were the beneficiaries of a career-reviving year from UConn transfer Josh Carlton, a minute-eating forward in Fabian White, and a solid year at the two-guard from Texas Tech transfer Kyler Edwards.

This year, if things go well (and at this rate, even if they don’t), Houston is poised for another fantastic year that just may keep them in at least the Top Five as long as there aren’t any freak losses.

A Healthy Marcus Sasser could be an All-American

Sasser is arguably Houston’s most hyped player in recent program history. A six-two guard with virtually unlimited range, he’s been described as “lights-out,” while also being able to serve as a reliable point guard and marshaling offense when need be. He had a team-best 17.7 points per game through twelve contests, but a foot injury sent him to the sideline for the rest of last year’s season.

Sasser showed out at the G-League Elite combine, impressing scouts and fans alike. But ultimately, he made the (smart) decision to come back to Houston with the spotlight on #0 in red.

Sasser is already a pre-season All-America First Team as released by Blue Ribbon. His company is UNC’s Armando Bacot, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, Gonzaga’s Drew Time, and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis…some crew.

If Sasser is healthy, the sky is the limit…both for the Cougars’ chances at a national title, and himself as a professional afterwards.

Jamal Shead & Tramon Mark back for more

Naturally, in Sasser’s absence, there were contributors that stepped up for Houston last year. Jamal Shead was unquestionably at the top of the list. Although he started off-the-bench, Shead became an immediate-impact floor marshal. The then-sophomore finished the year with 10 points and just shy of 6 assists per game last year, indicative of his dual-threat nature in both creating and scoring. Shead will have an unmeasurably impactful role in the team’s success this year - can he continue facilitating on a team that has only improved? Fellow junior Tramon Mark is also someone national media is bullish on this year - having logged 20 minutes per game in what would’ve been a breakout year, he too fell victim to injury and sat out the rest of the year. It’s believed that Mark widened his game in the offseason and will be back to his double-figure scoring ways.

Freshmen Jarace Walker & Terrance Arceneaux poised to make immediate impact

Could the newcomers be the guys that give this Houston team the ultimate advantage? It’s certainly a possibility with the way the media has reacted to Jarace Walker’s arrival in Houston, who has been called the “best recruit in program history.” Walker, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound power forward from Florida, might indeed be a match made in heaven for this group. He’s a grinder in the front court, very similar to the style of play Adama Sanogo has taken up at UConn over the past few seasons. Sure, Walker will have to learn Kelvin Sampson’s defensive scheme, which is quite literally a whole different ballgame than he was used to at IMG Academy…but with some time, the potential is there for Walker to be double-double-per-game-type player. Terrance Arceneaux could be another X-factor for Houston, as he’s already garnered some praise for his rebounding prowess for only being 6-foot-5. Arceneaux can score, and in a scheme that favors creative offensive players, you’d have to think he can get some playing time here.

Kelvin's greatness continues

Let’s get it straight: yes, the players are the ones putting the ball into the basket, but Houston’s year-over-year success is a credit to Kelvin Sampson and his Hall-of-Fame career. Sampson is approaching career win number 700 as an NCAA head coach, which places him in the top ten of all-time active head coaches, and for good reason. He now sports nearly a 75% win percentage in 8 full seasons at Houston.

“We never talk about (the expectations). We never have,” Sampson told the media a few weeks ago. “Our focus is always on getting our team together, getting our kids to understand how we play, the standards that we ask for how hard you have to play every day.”


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