A tough weeks worth of non-conference games begins Saturday afternoon when the Sam Houston State Bearkats take on the Houston Cougars.
The Bearkats are coming off a less than inspiring home victory over St. Thomas. Their performance will have to be much-improved to come out with a win on Saturday.
The Cougars are trying to build off last season's NCAA Tournament appearance, but so far it has been an up and down season under first-year head coach James Dickey.
UH boasts blowout wins against Alcorn State and Northwestern Oklahoma State, which is a common opponent for these teams. They also have solid wins over Nicholls State and the Bob Marlin-coached Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns.
Mixed in with those wins are losses against TCU, LSU and Louisiana Tech.
Statistically, the Cougars are led by senior guard Adam Brown, who is averaging 15.4 points per game on 53.4 percent shooting. He has also connected on 17 of his 31 three-point attempts for 54.8 percent. Brown has led the Cougars in scoring in five of their seven games.
Brown controls the perimeter while senior forward Maurice McNeil is the muscle in the paint. In addition to his 11.3 points per game, McNeil leads the team with 9.1 rebounds per game, almost half of which are on the offensive end.
These Cougars don't score quite like those Cougars teams under former head coach Tom Penders, but they have plenty of guys that can fill it up. Seven players are averaging at least six points per contest.
They don't take as many threes as they did under Penders, but they still shoot a lot of them. So far this season, they have shot 122 of them. Their percentages are up, though. As a team, they are shooting 39.3 percent from behind the arc. Compare that to last season when they shot 35.6 percent as a team and to two seasons ago when they shot 32.3 percent.
What this UH team will bring that no UH team ever brought under Penders is a defensive edge. As a team, they come into this game with 32 total blocked shots and 39 steals. They are holding opponents to 66.4 points per game.
The Cougars are led on the defensive end by lightning quick point guard Zamal Nixon. The senior out of Brooklyn leads the team with 15 steals, more than two per game. Alandise Harris, Maurice McNeil and Kirk Van Slyke each average right around one blocked shot per game.
I would like this matchup for the Bearkats a lot more of they were still coached by Penders. One of the struggles thus far for the Bearkats has been getting into any sort of rhythm on the offensive end. The Penders run and gun offense would have give the Kats a good chance to push the pace and run a little bit. They have wanted to push the pace all season, but the grind it out pace of other teams has kept that from happening very often.
As it is now, the Bearkats may have to try to dictate tempo and get some of the Cougars who played under Penders to fall back into old habits and start launching shots early in the shot clock.
For me, rebounding is a huge part of this game. If you're going to try to start fast breaks and get points in transition, you have to rebound the basketball and keep the Cougars from getting multiple shots on each possession. This is easier said than done thanks to the Cougars veteran frontcourt led by McNeil, who we discussed is an elite offensive rebounder.
Judging by the way teams have defended the Bearkats recently, the secret is out that they are going to try to post up either Clavell or Bootle almost every time down in the half court offense. The inconsistent shooting of the Bearkat guards thus far has kept them from being able to keep defenses honest. Teams are collapsing into the post and daring the guards to drain threes when the big men kick it back out. This would certainly be a fine time for the outside shooting to come alive.
This game on Saturday will give the Bearkats a little peek into what conference play might be like. The Cougars will push the Bearkats as much as any team in the Southland. I'm guessing the Bearkats will come out ready to play coming off the ugly game against St. Thomas. If this game turns into a relative track meet, the Bearkats have a good shot to come out with a win. If they are forced into playing the tempo UH wants to play, we may have another ugly, foul-ridden game on our hands.
Before I go, I'd like to thank the Alvin Brooks family for likely making this game happen. This non-conference game makes way too much sense to not happen from time to time. I look forward to it and I hope to see many of you at Johnson Coliseum Saturday afternoon.