Aug. 16, 2011
HOUSTON - As the University of Houston men's basketball team continues to prepare for the 2011-12 season, no one is more excited for mid-October and the start of official practice to arrive than second-year head coach James Dickey.
After a challenging campaign a year ago and guiding a 2011-12 team with 11 student-athletes in only their first or second year with the program, some may think Dickey would lie awake at nights.
However, talk with the Cougar leader for just a few minutes, and fans will share his optimism.
"I am excited and thrilled with the opportunity that we have here," Dickey said. "We love the athleticism of this team. Our players have the ability to score, and we will be better, both offensively and defensively. We will be a good rebounding team and take care of the ball, and we will be a tough team, mentally and physically."
With a new influx of talent, Cougar fans will see noticeable differences from the squad less than a year ago.
Dickey plans to take advantage of his team's athletic talent while continuing to play intelligently.
"We are looking to play more up-tempo. Our players have the ability to score," Dickey said. "We want to give our guys freedom, but at the same time, we want them to take good shots."
Six players return from 2010-11. Although the Cougars will have four upperclassmen (seniors and juniors) in 2011-12, this remains a very young team.
Those four veterans have earned a combined three letters among them with junior forward Kirk Van Slyke's two letters accounting for most.
Altogether, eight players will don the Scarlet and White for the first time this season. That group includes four high school stars, two junior college players, one transfer and a redshirt freshman.
Despite the team's youth, Dickey and his staff look forward to the challenge of the 2011-12 season.
"The key word is chemistry, We have to work really hard to develop chemistry," Dickey said. "These are terrific young men, and they have a good feel for one another already."
The Cougars will benefit from the infusion of talent against opponents in 2011-12 and on the practice floor.
Competition for playing time among the Cougars will only make the team better with more intense practices.
"Players must bring their `A" games to practice every day. They know their minutes are based on their in-game performances and how hard they practice," Dickey said. "To get into the games, though, productive practices are important. We want our players to be geared to winning every drill in every practice, and that will translate onto game night."
Dickey isn't the only person singing the team's praise. Al James, assistant director for sports performance, worked closely with the Cougars during the summer workouts and was impressed with what he has seen to date.
"The attitude has changed. Everyone is attacking what we are doing right now. From the smallest guy to the biggest guy, the attitude has been great," James said. "We have a lot freshmen coming in, but they have made the adjustment well. They are getting better everyday, and they work well as a unit together. They push one another and compete against one another. I can't wait for everyone to get back for the fall."
Darian Thibodeaux returns in 2011-12 as the elder statesman for the Cougars. The Dallas native will be the program's only senior this season and will play a key leadership role, both on and off the court.
A year ago, Thibodeaux was the only player to start all 30 games and should be a regular in the Cougar backcourt in 2011-12. He finished with 8.3 points per game and ranked among the league's individual leaders in 3-point field goal percentage and 3-point field goals made per game.
With his 44.0 percentage from behind the arc, Thibodeaux also posted the second-highest total in Houston single-season history. A hard-nosed player, Thibodeaux is regularly called upon to defend opponents' top backcourt scorer.
Redshirt freshman guard Joseph Young makes his eagerly awaited collegiate debut in 2011-12 after sitting out all of last season. A highly decorated star from nearby Yates High, Young was a key figure in the Lion's back-to-back state championships and No. 1 national ranking in 2010.
Now, Young will take his game to the collegiate level. Although he did not compete in any games a year ago, he regularly practiced with the Cougars and gained a valuable year of experience in the program.
Young is a talented shooter who can stun fans and opponents with his range. He should see considerable time at both guard positions. He will have four years of eligibility remaining with the start of the 2011-12 season.
Sophomore Donald Brooks joined the team as a walk-on prior to the start of practice a year ago and will add depth to the backcourt. He is one of seven Houston-area players on the 2011-12 roster.
Alandise Harris returns for his sophomore season after a productive campaign a year ago. The Little Rock, Ark., native became a regular in the Cougars' starting lineup during the second half of the season and ranked second on the squad with 5.4 rebounds per game.
This season, Harris will be expected to be a leader in the frontcourt. Despite his ability to always be around the ball in the low post, Harris also can surprise opposing defenses with his touch from behind the arc.
Van Slyke returns to the program this season and gives the Cougars some versatility on the floor. At 6-9, Van Slyke ranks as one of the taller players on the team and should see plenty of playing time down low.
However, The Woodlands, Texas, native also can be a threat from behind the 3-point line and ranked fourth on the team a year ago with 22 treys.
Fans will quickly notice the size and bulk that Van Slyke put on his frame during the off-season, thanks to hard work in the weight room with assistant director of sports performance Al James.
Van Slyke started the season with 12 points and 10 rebounds against Nicholls State a year ago. Dickey and his staff will expect similar numbers throughout the season from Van Slyke in 2011-12.
Sophomore forward Mikhail McLean competed in 27 games a year ago and made seven starts in the second half of the season. The Houston native impressed coaches with his physical gifts and work ethic and should earn more and more playing time as he continues to refine his game.
In addition to his on-court play, McLean is a leader for the Cougars in the classroom, earning a place on the 2011 C-USA Commissioner's Honor Roll.
Sophomore Rakim Stevenson joined the Cougars before the start of last season and will add depth to the frontcourt. He is one of seven Houston-area players on the 2011-12 roster.
One of the largest signing classes in school history will join the program in 2011-12. Eight players will don the Scarlet and White for the first time during their collegiate careers with seven of those competing in 2011-12.
Junior forward J.J. Richardson will sit out this season after transferring from Pittsburgh.
Junior guard Jonathon Simmons joined the Cougars after sitting out the 2010-11 season to focus on academics. In 2009-10, he competed at Midland College, where he was a member of the WACJAC and Region 5 All-Conference Teams.
Ranked as the No. 19 player nationally by JucoJunction.com, the Houston native also was named Most Valuable Player at the Holiday Hoops Classic in Las Vegas.
A product of Smiley High in Houston, Simmons should see playing time at both guard positions and also on the wing.
Freshman Jherrod Stiggers will compete for playing time in the Cougar backcourt after an award-winning career at Terrell High. As a senior, he averaged 18.4 points per game on the way to being named the District 18-4A Most Valuable Player.
He was ranked as the No. 39 shooting guard nationally by ESPN and was listed as a 3-star recruit by both ESPN and Rivals.com.
Freshman J.J. Thompson will challenge for the starting nod at point guard in his first collegiate season. Thompson was ranked as the No. 44 point guard nationally by ESPN and earned District 7-5A Most Valuable Player honors as a senior.
A versatile athlete, the Irving, Texas, native was an All-District honoree as a wide receiver on the football team as well.
Freshman guard LeRon Barnes was a Class 3A All-State First Team honoree at Stonewall, La.'s North DeSoto High as a senior a year ago. A 3-star recruit by Rivals.com, Barnes competed in the Louisiana High School All-Star Game and was honored as the All-Area Most Valuable Player.
Freshman forward TaShawn Thomas will be a leader in the Cougar frontcourt in 2011-12 and the years to come. He was ranked as the No. 27 power forward nationally by Scout.com and No. 32 by ESPN.
In late July, he capped his prep career by competing in the Texas High School Coaches Association All-Star Game. That honor came after being named the District 25-4A Most Valuable Player for the second straight season and the 2010-11 All-Area Most Valuable Player.
Forward Leon Gibson is one of two junior college products to join the Cougars this season. A year ago, the Downey, Calif., native earned Region XIV All-Conference Honorable Mention at Navarro College.
In 2009-10, he was a teammate of current Cougar guard Darian Thibodeaux.
Richardson joins the Cougars after transferring from Pittsburgh. Although he must sit out this season to restore his eligibility, the Missouri City, Texas, native will have two years of eligibility remaining in 2012-13.
At 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, he ranks as one of the biggest players on the team and will gain a year of valuable experience practicing with the Cougars in 2011-12.
As a sophomore at Pitt in 2010-11, he helped lead the Panthers to the Big East regular-season title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament Third Round.
Only one game on the Cougars' 2011-12 schedule had been announced by press time. Houston will meet Big 12 member Oklahoma on Dec. 17 in Oklahoma City, Okla., during the 76th Annual All-College Basketball Classic.
That game will be part of a doubleheader with Oklahoma State facing New Mexico in the other contest.
Fans and media should stay tuned to UHCougars.com for the latest information about the 2011-12 schedule.