Upcoming SMU game looms large for the Houston Cougars men’s basketball team.

In what has been an up and down season for the (15-6, 5-4) Houston Cougars men’s basketball team, they will have the chance Monday night at Holfeinz Pavillion to right the ship against #13 SMU. The Cougars breezed through their non-conference schedule, picking up a big win at home against projected first overall NBA draft pick Ben Simmons and his LSU Tigers.

After starting AAC play 3-0, they fell on hard times losing four straight. The Cougars didn’t play well in the first half at Cincinnati, and that ultimately was where the game was lost. They had a 7-point lead at halftime at home against UCONN, but were outscored by 19 in the second half. UCONN used a 18-5 run late in the second half, to beat the Cougars. They went to Dallas for a Texas showdown against then undefeated and #8 ranked SMU. The Mustangs used two separate 8-0 runs to pull this one out 77-73. SMU used an 8-0 run to end the first half, that tied the score. They followed that up with another 8-0 run late in the ballgame, to seize control for good. It was the third straight game in which the Cougars were playing a nationally ranked team, or team receiving votes in a national poll. This was a game I felt the Cougars should’ve won. They played well enough, in a hostile environment and ultimately couldn’t close the game out. The Mustangs only led for 8:07 in the game.

In what may have been a wake-up call for Coach Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars, they were thoroughly embarrassed by (3-17, 0-7) USF. Houston could only muster 37% shooting, and had to try and battle back from leads as big as 16 points, on multiple occasions. The Cougars trimmed the lead to 4, but couldn’t quite get over the hump to catch the Bulls. After a tough week of practice in which Sampson said they had their best practice of the season, the Cougars stopped their 4-game skid, to beat (13-6,5-2) Tulsa inside Holfeinz Pavillion. They shot 46% from the field, and limited Tulsa to 32%. The Cougars shot 84% (21-25) from the free throw line, which is something that has plagued them for much of the season.  Houston followed the Tulsa win with a hard fought, 97-93 double overtime win, at ECU.  Led by Sophomore guard Rob Gray’s career-high 31 points, the Cougars got to back over .500 in conference play. Again, the Cougars struggled from the free throw line, shooting only 55% (12-22) from the stripe.  They shoot 69% from the charity stripe on the season. During their 4-game losing streak, they had hit only 64% of their free throws. Coach Sampson has said this is the first bad free throw shooting team, in the 26 years he has coached.

According to Sampson, during the season high losing streak, the built to run Cougars, had become slow. He had stated after the USF loss, “we were almost playing backwards.” Against Tulsa, the Cougars got back to attacking on offense. With the win against Tulsa, the Cougars surpassed their win total from all of the 14-15 season (13). Sampson hopes the previous downfalls, have been erased for good. He still firmly believes, and should, that this team is good enough to beat anyone in the conference. The Cougars must continue to play their style of basketball, which is an up-tempo, attacking style.

When Kelvin Sampson arrived in 2014, he inherited a team that saw his two best players transfer, and not much continuity. But over the last year, he has started to put his stamp on the program. It will only continue to improve with each recruiting class. A win on Monday against SMU would also do a great deal for a team that is only 3 games out of first place in the conference, with over a month to play. A limited number of tickets are still available to the game, and the Cougars need and want a packed house. You can get them at UHCougars.com/tickets. After a fantastic year in football, it’s time to get behind and support this Houston Cougars men’s basketball team.  It’s not too late for another exciting season on Cullen Blvd.