Oct. 16, 2012
HOUSTON - As the University of Houston men's basketball team prepares to open the 2012-13 season, it is easy to see why a sense of optimism flows throughout the program.
Under the leadership of third-year Head Coach James Dickey, the Cougars return five lettermen - including three starters - and add one of the program's greatest recruiting classes as they begin their final season in Conference USA.
"I really like the attitude of our team. I like the way our guys are working, and the camaraderie that we have developed," Dickey said. "We hope to continue building on our team chemistry as we progress into the season."
With the team's top two scorers gone from last season, fans may wonder where the scoring will come from. Sophomore guard Joseph Young and sophomore forward TaShawn Thomas both were named to the Conference USA All-Freshman Team a year ago are expected to contribute offensively in the backcourt and frontcourt, respectively.
However, Dickey is confident that the entire offensive output will not come from just those two student-athletes.
"We feel like we can be balanced, and we want to share the ball," Dickey said. "The one area we want to improve on is assists and helping our teammates score. That can also come from screening as well as passing."
Defense has been a point of emphasis for the Cougars since the end of the 2011-12 season. Thomas returns as the team's leading rebounder and shot blocker and should be a stopper in the middle in 2012-13.
The addition of assistant sports performance coach Bryan Lewis also has paid dividends for the team in a very short time.
"I like our athleticism and our skill. Our strength and conditioning work over the spring and the summer was good, and the guys are continuing to work hard on their conditioning," Dickey said. "We want our guys to be in superior condition. We want to be tougher, and you become tougher by playing through adversity and pushing yourself harder than ever before with the expectation of good things happening to you."
The Cougars also will be boosted by the return of our student-athletes from a year ago. Sophomore forward Mikhail McLean and freshman guards LeRon Barnes and Jherrod Stiggers missed most or - in Stiggers' case, all - of last season with injuries and received medical redshirts.
That group joins junior forward J.J. Richardson, who regularly practiced with the team in 2011-12 after transferring from Pittsburgh.
In addition to their contributions during games, the group will challenge their teammates during practices, making the entire program better.
"Having those guys back gives us depth which will make for more competitive practices. These guys are skilled and play hard," Dickey said. "It will be a big boost to have them back.
Houston will compete in its final season in Conference USA in 2012-13. Beginning in 2013-14, the Cougars will become a member of the BIG EAST Conference in all sports. Making the move to, arguably, the nation's best college basketball league will only enhance the Cougars' reputation across the nation.
Big things were expected from Young when he joined the Cougars a year ago, and the sophomore did little to dampen anyone's hopes.
Competing in his first season with the Cougars in 2011-12, Young ranked third on the team with 11.3 points per game and established himself as one of the league's premier long-range shooters, ranking among the C-USA top-10 individual leaders in 3-point field goals and 3-point field goal percentage.
A versatile player who can play either guard position, Young is capable of leading the team from the point when necessary or putting up points on the scoreboard. The product of nearby Yates High and son of Cougar legend Michael Young also led Houston in minutes played and steals and continues to refine his game in all areas.
For his impressive efforts throughout the season, Young was one of two Cougars named to the 2012 C-USA All-Freshman Team and was honored as the league's Freshman of the Week after pouring in a career-high 27 points in win against SMU in late February, Young was honored as the league's Freshman of the Week.
Playing at point guard in his first collegiate season a year ago, J.J. Thompson gained valuable experience and will be an even better player in 2012-13. A year ago, Thompson led the Cougars with 2.5 assists per game and added nearly 6.0 points per contest. Thompson is a true point guard who can pass, handle the ball and lead the Cougars on the court but is more than capable of scoring when needed.
The Irving, Texas, native scored a career-high 15 points in the Cougars' win against Tulsa and started 19 straight games midway through the season. With a successful summer under his belt, Thompson will challenge for the starting nod at the points in 2012-13.
Junior Jimmie Jones provided a spark off the bench for the Cougars midway through the season and should see key minutes at point guard in 2012-13. Joining the Cougars as a walk-on, Jones broke into the lineup and made it difficult for Dickey and his coaches to take out.
Used mostly for his ball-handling and leadership skills on the court, Jones is a speedy player who leads the Cougars well in transition and in their half-court game. However, the Plano, Texas, native can be a pest for opposing backcourt players and ignited several Cougar runs with his defensive play, leading to easy Houston baskets.
Barnes showed glimpses of a promising future early in the 2011-12 season but was forced to the sidelines for the rest of the year with a groin injury. After a successful rehabilitation program, Barnes is expected to be at 100 percent when practice begins in mid-October.
An all-around athlete, the Stonewall, La., native is capable of playing both guard positions and at small forward.
After suffering a knee injury in the preseason a year ago, Stiggers was forced to sit out the entire 2011-12 campaign as a redshirt. Fortunately, the Terrell, Texas, native underwent a successful rehabilitation and will be at full strength when the Cougars begin practice in mid-October.
Prior to his injury, Stiggers impressed the Cougars with his all-around athleticism and jumping ability as well as his defensive presence. He will play a key role in the Cougar backcourt in 2012-13.
Junior Donald Brooks is in his third year with the program and will provide depth in the backcourt.
Thomas made a big impact for the Cougars during his first season a year ago. The Killeen, Texas, native was the only Cougar to start all 30 games in 2011-12 and should be a fixture in the starting lineup this season.
At 6-foot-8, Thomas ranks as one of the biggest Cougars on the roster and is expected to be a leader in the frontcourt this season. As a freshman, Thomas finished fourth on the team with 10.7 points per game but led the Cougars and ranked fifth in the league with 8.2 rebounds per game. He also finished second in the league with more than two blocked shots per game.
Thomas led the Cougars in field goal percentage, offensive and defensive rebounds and total rebounds. With nine double-doubles in his inaugural campaign, he also led Houston and finished fifth in Conference USA.
Leon Gibson is one of three seniors on the 2012-13 team and will be expected to be a leader, both on and off the court. At 6-foot-9 and 235 points, the Los Angeles native is one of the biggest Cougars on the roster, and Houston needs Gibson to make his presence known under the boards.
A year ago, Gibson averaged 4.0 points and 3.3 rebounds as one of the Cougars' top reserves. However, he showed throughout the season the ability to post even bigger numbers.
When the Cougars traveled east to face Marshall, Gibson led the team with 17 points and 11 rebounds - including six off the offensive glass - for the first double-double of his career.
After playing only five games a year ago, McLean received a medical redshirt and will return to the Cougar lineup in 2012-13. The Houston native averaged 2.2 points and 3.0 rebounds per game before a stress fracture in his right foot forced him to the sidelines for good.
After successful surgery and rehabilitation, McLean should be at full strength when the Cougars start practice. At 6-foot-8 and 205 pounds, he is one of the Cougars' most talented all-around athletes and is expected to make key contributions in the frontcourt in 2012-13.
The Cougars will be boosted by the return of junior Richardson in 2012-13. A year ago, the Missouri City, Texas, native, practiced regularly with the team but was forced to sit out of all games after transferring from Pittsburgh prior to the season.
Although he missed game competition, Richardson's drive, physical abilities and leadership impressed his teammates and the coaching staff. He is expected to challenge for a spot in the starting lineup on Opening Night.
The Cougars will welcome one of the greatest recruiting classes in school history to the program in 2012-13. Under the leadership of Dickey, associate head coach Alvin Brooks and assistant coach Daniyal Robinson, Houston signed a class ranked among the nation's top 25 by Rivals.com, Scout.com and ESPN.
Dickey and his coaching staff made no secret about their plans to strongly recruit the greater Houston area, and their results paid off in November 2011 during the early signing period.
"We needed to add depth and talent at all positions, and we did that," Dickey said. "We are excited about the addition of these players."
Forward Danuel House (Hightower HS, Sugar Land, Texas) was ranked among the nation's top 60 prospects and will contribute immediately in 2012-13. House is an elite athlete who will impress Cougar fans with his 3-point range and athleticism. He is a high-flying wing who can play small forward or at shooting guard.
Ranked at No. 15 in the ESPNU 100, House played for Team USA West at the Nike Global Challenge and was selected to play in the prestigious Jordan Brand Classic. As a senior, he scored 29 points with 13 rebounds, four assists, two steals and a pair of blocks in a playoff win against Bush High.
Valentine Izundu is a talented young freshman who will challenge for playing time in the frontcourt. The Houston native and Lamar Consolidated product continues to grow physically and develop his game and will be only 17 years old when the Cougars start practice.
At 6-foot-10, Izundu runs the floor well and has proven to be a defensive stopper.
Morris joins the Cougars out of Kansas City Kansas Community College , where he was an All-Jayhawk Conference Second Team selection a year ago. In 31 games, he averaged 16.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists and helped lead the Blue Devils to a 20-11 record.
As a freshman in 2010-11, the Alexandria, La., native posted at least six assists in nine games, including a career-high 10 assists in three contests. Joining the Cougars as an upperclassman, Morris is expected to be a leader to the younger players, both on and off the court.
Womack comes to the Cougars following an award-winning stint at Hagerstown Community College during the last two years. He led the Hawks to a combined 54-11 record and the Maryland state JUCO championship, where he was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
A great leader with a pass-first mentality, Womack is a quick player who has won at every level at which he has competed. As a prep star, he helped lead Randallstown High to four straight appearances in the state championship games, including a pair of titles. During his final three years, he led the team to a combined 73-8 overall record.
Eighteen home games, including the renewal of a rivalry against a former Southwest Conference opponent, highlight the Cougars' schedule this season.
The Cougars will play 17 regular-season home games as well as the exhibition opener against Concordia on Nov. 6 inside Hofheinz Pavilion.
Houston has won at least 10 games inside Hofheinz Pavilion during each of the last seven seasons. It is the longest streak of that kind since the Cougars opened the facility with nine straight 10-win seasons from 1969 to 1978.
"Our great fans will have many chances to see our team play in Hofheinz Pavilion all year long," Dickey said. "Our players and coaches worked hard during the spring and the summer."
Texas A&M Dec. 1
In one of the most anticipated games of the season, the Cougars play host to Texas A&M on Dec. 1. With 83 meetings in the all-time series, the Cougars have played no team more in their storied history than Texas A&M.
However, that will be the first time since Dec. 27, 2003, season that the Aggies have visited Hofheinz Pavilion.
The Cougars own a 53-30 lead in the all-time series against Texas A&M, including a 36-8 mark in Houston. Houston has won each of its three home games and not lost in its home facility against the Aggies since Jan. 19, 1994.
"Playing a rival like Texas A&M in Hofheinz Pavilion will be one of the highlights of our home schedule," Dickey said. "This was a tremendous rivalry when both teams played in the Southwest Conference, and we look forward to resuming this series with the Aggies."
Following their lone exhibition game, the Cougars open the season on Nov. 9 against Florida A&M. After a road contest at San Jose State (Nov. 13), Houston meets Grambling State and Louisiana College. The month of November wraps up with road games at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Prairie View A&M.
Houston fans will have plenty of chances to see the Cougars at home during the month of December. After the showdown vs. Texas A&M and a road game at TCU (Dec. 4), Houston will compete in four straight home games. The home swing begins on Dec. 8 against Texas Southern, continues Dec. 15 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette and Dec. 22 vs. Chicago State and wraps up on Dec. 29 vs. Prairie View A&M.
The non-conference season concludes on Jan. 3 against Texas-Pan American inside Hofheinz Pavilion. From there, the team breaks into its C-USA schedule with eight home games and eight road games on the docket.
Conference USA Play
The Cougars play host to SMU (Jan. 9), UCF (Jan. 19), Tulsa (Jan. 23), UAB (Jan. 26), Tulane (Feb. 9), UTEP (Feb. 13), Marshall (March 2) and crosstown-rival Rice (March 6) inside Hofheinz Pavilion during league play.
On the road, Houston travels to face Southern Miss (Jan. 12), East Carolina (Jan. 16), Rice (Jan. 30), Tulsa (Feb. 16), Memphis (Feb. 20), UTEP (Feb. 27) and Tulane (March 9.)
Conference USA Championship
Following the regular season, the Cougars return to Tulsa to compete at the Conference USA Championship on March 13-16. It will be Houston's final appearance at the league's postseason event as a member of Conference USA. Houston will compete as a member of the BIG EAST Conference beginning in 2013-14.
Cougar fans should have good memories of the program's last postseason visit to Tulsa. In 2010, the Cougars reeled off four wins in as many days to win the Conference USA Tournament championship and earn the program's first bid to the NCAA Tournament since 1992.
The winner of the league's annual postseason tournament receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.