Davis’ Deep Dives: No. 13 Houston basketball season preview 2021-22

Kelvin Sampson, Houston

Fresh off a Final Four appearance, Kelvin Sampson aims to keep Houston basketball atop the AAC with Memphis on its heels.

Riley’s Ranking: 19th

After rebuilding Houston over the last seven seasons, Kelvin Sampson notched his first legacy-altering milestone in 2021. Now with a Final Four on his resume, no one can deny his spot among the top coaches in the country.

And to be sure, Sampson shows no sign of slowing down. Remarkably, the head honcho has steered his Cougars into an enviable pattern of consistency. Few squads successfully minimize variance year in and year out, but Houston has found the formula. 

Just like every Chick-Fil-A gives you a “my pleasure,” every Coogs team gives you suffocating defense, offensive rebounding, and versatile, playmaking guards. Sampson has done a fantastic job at recruiting athletes with the length, strength, and agility needed to accomplish these program staples. Let’s break them down.

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First, we’ll get into the defense. Sampson roots his system in “no middle” concepts that erase open looks at the rim. Thus, it’s no coincidence that Houston has ranked 7th, 24th, 5th, and 7th in 2-point percentage defense over the last four seasons. Versus ball screens, in particular, the Coogs excel at rattling their opponents. In this video, Sampson details what makes his PnR defense tick. A quick summary: (1) guards “dictate” the opposing ballhandler’s movements by going over screens and cutting off angles; (2) big men come up to the ballhandler, almost like they’re switching; (3) help defenders communicate and cover the roll-man. The following two clips illustrate the three principles:

Houston Ball Screen Defense

With the current roster makeup, the defense should again execute these concepts at an elite level. At the top of the defense in both of the above clips is junior point guard Marcus Sasser. The 6-1 bulldog plays rugged on-ball defense, relentlessly navigating through screens to stick on his man. While Houston doesn’t apply much pressure, Sasser still gets right in the face of opposing guards and forces them away from the lane. 

In addition to Sasser, Sampson will rely upon his sturdy big men to keep his defense humming. The cyclopean duo of Reggie Chaney (first clip) and Fabian White (second clip) form a brick wall in front of the basket. With strength and positioning, they put post players in body bags as they lock down the interior. Observe below how Chaney overwhelms former five-star recruit Moussa Cisse:

No wonder Cisse transferred.

But the two bigs also display surprising lateral quickness in guarding the perimeter. Again, this boosts the ball-screen defense, as they “attack the guard at the line of scrimmage,” borrowing Sampson’s terminology. (Fitting that he uses that phrase, considering Houston’s physicality wouldn’t be out of place on a football field.) UConn transfer Josh Carlton will also factor into the rotation. While he may not be as mobile as Chaney and White, he could emerge as the Coogs’ best shot-blocker.

A final note on defense: in Texas Tech transfer Kyler Edwards and sophomore Tramon Mark, Sampson found two more high-level defenders. For the Red Raiders, Edwards flourished in a similar “no-middle” scheme, where he disrupted opponents either on-ball or off-ball. Mark, on the other hand, supplied fantastic defense off the bench and should further develop on that end in Year 2.

Next, we’ll turn to the second tenet of the Coogs’ blueprint: offensive rebounding. After losing Justin Gorham (best offensive rebounding percentage in the AAC last season), Houston’s prowess on the boards may slip a little. But considering Chaney and White’s skillsets, there shouldn’t be too much of a dropoff. Even coming off of an ACL tear, White posted an offensive rebounding percentage of 14.1 in 13 contests. (For comparison, Gorham’s league-leading number was 15.5.) But cleaning the glass doesn’t solely fall on the bigs. Both Mark and Edwards bring excellent rebounding from the wing — an important attribute, as Sampson often rushes three guys at the basket after a miss.

Lastly, we’ll look at the dynamic guards, the final component of Houston’s M.O. Similar to the defense, Sasser functions as the catalyst in this area. A season ago, the floor general burst forth as an electrifying scorer who prolifically shot off the bounce. Consistency appears to be the lone thing holding him back; Sasser may hit 6 threes one game then shoot 2-of-10 the next. If the junior can minimize his streakiness, he can push for AAC Player of the Year. (Yes, even over Emoni Bates.)

Edwards and Mark step into prime position next to Sasser. However, both face the unenviable task of replacing two heart-and-soul players in Quentin Grimes and DeJon Jarreau. While Edwards isn’t the self-creator that Grimes is, he still provides lights-out shooting off the catch. The marksman hit 41 percent of his 3-point attempts last season and 36 percent vs Tier-A competition (KenPom). Plus, he adds desperately needed value as a secondary playmaker.

Regarding Mark, the wing has drawn comparisons to Jarreau since enrolling last season. But these comparisons stem more from his build than his playing style. The sophomore hoops with a bucket-getting mentality compared to the pass-first preference of his predecessor. Not that Mark can’t make smart passes, he just shines more as a slasher who attacks the basket with force.

Sophomore Jamal Shead, grad transfer Taze Moore (Cal State Bakersfield), and freshmen Ramon Walker and Robbie Armbrester all bring depth to the unit. Shead will spell Sasser at the point, while Moore will hope his well-rounded game translates to the American. But it’s the freshmen who offer the most intriguing potential.

Though neither boast lauded pedigrees, they both fit seamlessly into Houston’s culture. Walker just looks like a Sampson guard, from his 6-5 frame to his affinity for short shorts. He mainly plays on-ball, exhibiting explosiveness on the dribble-drive and some adeptness as a facilitator. Armbrester, despite being listed as a guard, looks a bit more amorphous on the court. The burly 6-4 wing battles with bigs down low, but he also shows decent perimeter tools, including a solid handle. However, he looks most dangerous as a cutter, thundering down an alley-oop.

With its coaching, experience, and high-upside bench, you can pencil Houston in for another unstoppable run through the American. Let Memphis have all the preseason hype — Sampson and Co. have zero problems with zero frills.

TL/DR:

Projected starters: G – Marcus Sasser (Jr.); G – Kyler Edwards (Sr.); G – Tramon Mark (So.); F – Fabian White (Gr.); F – Reggie Chaney (Sr.)

Projected bench: G – Jamal Shead (So.); G – Taze Moore (Gr.); F/C – Josh Carlton (Gr.); G – Ramon Walker (Fr.); G/F – Robbie Armbrester (Fr.)

Strengths: Defense; offensive rebounding; playmaking guards

Weaknesses: Streaky shooting; unproven depth

Best player: Sasser

Breakout player: Mark