Court Report: How Houston is validating status as top-10 program; Miami returns after crippling FBI setback

It’s hard to imagine another team making a Final Four run, following up said run with a 16-2 start to its season and receiving less acclaim than Houston is right now. The shorthanded, 10th-ranked Cougars won again on Tuesday night, tearing away from South Florida by 19 points to extend their streak to eight. It’s the fifth time since 2018-19 that the Coogs have won at least eight straight games.

We’ve grown accustomed to seeing Houston be pretty good, but what’s happening in H-Town in 2022 is different. Yes, this is again the best team by a wide margin in the American Athletic Conference. However, Kelvin Sampson’s doing this without two of his three best players (Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark), who are out for the remainder of the season. Four other players have missed games this season due to injury as well. The team hasn’t run a normal practice with a full allotment of players and typical drills for most of the season. One of team’s better shooters, Ramon Walker, had tendon reattachment surgery in his right hand and missed five weeks. 

Ho-hum. Guys are 16-2. 

How does Houston not lose a step? Most teams in this spot would reasonably fall back a little in the hierarchy.

“Easy answer is every class that we’ve had here, I think, has taken pride in the class behind them,” Sampson told me Tuesday night. “Culture, to us, is tangible.”

Jamal Shead is another example. He sprained his ankle early in Houston’s win over the weekend against Tulsa. He was in a boot and crutches on Sunday. Expectation was that he’d miss around two weeks. Monday came, the crutches were gone and he was only in a boot. By Tuesday afternoon, he was in a shoe. Shead played 20 minutes on Tuesday.

“He’s got some kind of magic genes,” Sampson said. 

All these roster setbacks haven’t slowed Houston. The Cougars rank second at Torvik, third in BPI, fourth in the NET and sixth at KenPom. The two losses are by a combined three points to 15-2 Wisconsin on a neutral court and at Alabama on a controversial ending that could have gone Houston’s way. 

Almost no coach could do this.

Sampson’s had it rolling since his second season at UH in 2015-16. That’s when the Cougars went 22-10 and made the NIT in the first of two consecutive years. Since then, Houston has been an NCAA Tournament lock, averaging 27.8 wins and making the 2021 Final Four, the program’s first since the gloried era of the mid-’80s. Sampson doesn’t need a top-ranked class or a superstar scorer to navigate through the schedule and land high seeds. The two most recent tournament had the Cougars on the 2- and 3-line, respectively. 

“Our personalities, our toughness, scraping and clawing for rebounds — those things travel,” Sampson said. “If you have to depend on efficient offense every night, then the night you’re not efficient and don’t make shots, that means those are probably the nights you’re going to lose. But if you can defend and rebound, move the ball and scrap and claw and fight — just fight, man — that doesn’t take any talent. Just be good in the areas that don’t require talent. That’s who we are.” 

Houston has found a reliable big in Josh Carlton, who’s adjusted to becoming a more prominent player on this team. Houston hasn’t always won with a traditional big (“we haven’t had that guy,” Sampson told me), but he’s been pivotal to this team’s success. Carlton was put through a variety of trials since he arrived last June. It’s paying off (11.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg in 20.3 minutes). 

“When Marcus (Sasser) was [healthy] he was going to lead us in shot attempts. And then after that we were trying to figure out who was our next guy,” Sampson said. “Fabian (White)? Kyler (Edwards)? For us to be good in March, it had to be Josh. When Marcus went down, OK, we’re going to make Josh the number one option. We have to run the ball a little bit. Can’t pass it every single possession — at some point you have to be good at the line of scrimmage, and in basketball, for us, that’s in the paint.”

Texas Tech transfer Kyler Edwards finally has had his talent showing as of late. He had a career-high 29 points on Saturday in UH’s win over Tulsa. He hit seven 3s and played all but eight seconds in the game. 

“Kyler’s game just went up another level, ” Sampson said. “He wasn’t ready early. It’s like he just arrived.”

It’s true. Despite being a high-profile transfer acquisition, Sampson said Edwards was the fourth option to start the season. Earlier this month vs. Wichita State, he was a horrendous 1-of-14 shooting. But Sampson didn’t care about that because he was tremendous defensively. 

And yet, Houston still doesn’t get its due. Maybe it’s because the program was bad for more than 20 years. Maybe it’s because the American has been worse than expected this season. Even still, a 9-7 Memphis team in the same league has received three times as much attention. Houston will join the Big 12 come 2023, and it’s likely the program will become more regularly talked about for what it is: contemporarily one of the 10-15 best programs in the sport. 

I got to talking about Houston’s lack of consistent and widespread acclaim with Sampson on Tuesday night. We’ll wrap the opening of this week’s Court Report on how he’s changed in regard to caring so much about what other people say about his program and how much attention it receives. I found it illuminating. 

“We’re not sexy. We’re not pretty. That could be described as me too. I’m an old curmudgeon type, probably an acquired taste and most people probably don’t care for it. I don’t know … I think the only thing that I would begrudge of that is our kids deserve it. It’s hard to win a game. We fought our tails off to win that Wisconsin game and came within an eyelash. We came within a whistle of winning the Alabama game — or some made free throws or play a little better — but it’s two games to two really good teams. And we’ve had nights where we played well and still won. At this stage of my career, I used to fight that stuff and fight for it because of how hard our kids worked, and you always want your program to be respected, but now I just enjoy coaching this team. I enjoy coaching. I enjoy watching these kids come in every day and leave every day. Get a little better each day and the rest will take care of itself.”

Miami returns after FBI story set team back for years

You see what Miami did to North Carolina on Tuesday? The U won 85-57, giving the Hurricanes their largest margin of victory (28) ever vs. the Tar Heels. The Hurricanes blasted up KenPom’s rankings too; they were 83rd at the start of the game and 59th after it. At 13-4 overall and an ACC-leading 6-1 with wins over UNC, at Duke and vs. Wake Forest, Jim Larrañaga’s team is a viable at-large candidate as of today. Pretty solid for a team picked 12th in the ACC back in October.

It’s been some time, but welcome back, Miami. 

If you forgot about this school, you’re far from alone. It was irrelevant the last three-plus years. Truth is, Miami went through more unnecessary anxiety than any other school — with nothing to show for it. When Larrañaga left George Mason for Coral Gables in 2011, he inherited one of the toughest gigs in the ACC. Yet, for the first seven years of his tenure, he had a better record in ACC play than all others except Virginia, Duke and North Carolina — with a winning record vs. the latter two. 

Then Sept. 26, 2017 happened. The FBI announced an unprecedented investigation into corruption within college basketball recruiting. Miami was initially roped into it because of a loose connection to former recruit Nassir Little but was ultimately exonerated and cleared of any wrongdoing. Still, said exoneration did not come immediately. Miami paid a huge price in recruiting. The FBI headlines combined with losing NBA picks Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker after the 2017-18 season meant Miami lost all its momentum. 

Remember the first team Loyola Chicago beat on its way to a Cinderella Final Four run? It was Miami. 

Things went downhill fast after that. 

Remember how good of a player Saddiq Bey was for Villanova before becoming a first-round NBA pick? Most don’t know he privately committed to Miami 48 hours before the FBI showed up. Miami couldn’t effectively recruit for 18 months. It didn’t sign a player in the class of 2018, relying only on transfers to fill the roster. The following season was in limbo until the first of two federal trials in the fall of 2018 finally cleared Miami’s name. At that point it was 1.5 recruiting classes behind. 

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it,” Larrañaga said Tuesday night. “And I shared that with my staff and with my my players look at, you know, everybody goes through adversity in life and how we handle it will determine whether we’re able ever able to overcome it. And we’re heading in the right direction both this year and with our recruiting moving forward.”

A lot of credit is due to Larrañaga, his staff and the players who bought into playing at a place that had little business getting back into ACC title contention. Last season, when it was trying to work its way back, Miami’s players missed 113 combined games to injury, the most of any power conference program. This has been a slog. 

“You have to be committed physically, mentally, emotionally,” Larrañaga said. “And spiritually. And the beautiful thing about this team is they’re very committed to each other, they trust each other, like playing with each other. And I give a lot of credit to Charlie Moore and to Jordan Miller, because those guys … they were at other schools. They got recruited highly. They could have gone someplace else. It’s not that that freshmen couldn’t, but these are older experienced guys. You know, sometimes those guys come in and they want to show you what they can do instead. Charlie and and Jordan have just embraced our philosophy.” 

There’s also been murmurs about when Larrañaga is going to retire. But at this point the U could be the sneaky team that makes it back to where they were for much of the first half of Larrañaga’s tenure: at or near the top of the ACC. He’s a guy with a 14-17 mark vs. Duke and North Carolina. Miami was 4-31 against those two before he got here. The only coach with a better record since Larrañaga arrived has a national title. His name is Tony Bennett. Beware the Canes.

After a three-year dry spell, Miami is back and currently has the best record in the ACC.
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Lurking at-large candidates

There are some squads out there who you don’t realize are destined for the NCAA Tournament, so let’s shed a little light. I wanted to bring attention to some just-off-the-radar teams that fit my too-specific criteria. No. 1: You can’t have been ranked at any point this season. No. 2: No more than three combined Quad 1 and Quad 2 wins. No. 3: You haven’t earned high-profile victories or done things to bring you a burst of publicity. (Sorry, Oregon.) No. 4: At least four losses. 

Basically, teams that have been good-not-great but could be playing a slow hand in ultimately earning an NCAA Tournament bid come March. These are teams with work to do, and I anticipate that work to get done. We always get a couple of these types each year. You look up, and it’s: OK, so Team X is apparently going to be a No. 11 seed even though I don’t think I’ve seen them play more than twice

Here are some lurking at-large candidates. By no means a full list, but want to give you a taste, as I think at least three of the six teams listed below will be in the field of 68.

Wake Forest (14-4)

I could list Miami just as easily here, for what it’s worth, but the Canes have a portion to themselves above. So we go with Steve Forbes’ overachieving group. Three combined Quadrant 1 + 2 wins. A good record. Yet to be ranked in the AP Top 25 and sits at 4-3 in a mediocre ACC. Three of the four losses are against good teams: LSU on a neutral, at Miami, home vs. Duke. Alondes Williams is one of the five best transfers in college hoops this season. Check the schedule and you see the next five games are all winnable. Even going 4-1 and getting to 18-5 will put Wake in a workable spot heading into February.

Fresno State (13-4)

I don’t believe people realize how likely it is the Mountain West sends at least four teams dancing. Half the conference sits in the top 71 of the NET: Wyoming (27), Colorado State (30), San Diego State (43), Boise State (50) Fresno State (55) and Utah State (71). Boise State has won 10 in a row and Wyoming is a legit Cinderella candidate. But we’ll home in on the Fresno State Bulldogs, who are a combined 3-4 in the top two quadrants but also don’t have a bad loss and are 3-1 in the Mountain West. Also have one of the best mid-major NBA prospects in 7-footer Orlando Robinson. 

SMU (13-4)

Exact kind of team I’m talking about here. Just no buzz whatsoever about the Ponies being a tournament team in 2022. How much you wanna bet we’ll look up and these guys are in Dayton? Sit at 2-2 in the Quad 1/2 and haven’t beaten a top-60 KenPom team. Not in the convo. Not now. Can’t help but wonder if Tim Jankovich gets this team to like 23-7 and squeaks in. 

UAB (15-4)

Andy Kennedy has proven once again he knows how to run a good program. Conference USA’s highest-ranked team are the Blazers, who will get a push from North Texas and Louisiana Tech. A 2-3 Q1/2 mark doesn’t bode well for the Blazers’ at-large case, but if they can manage to get to the postseason with only two more losses, there will be a discussion on the table. Next two are on the road against Louisiana Tech — a team still unbeaten in C-USA competition —  and Western Kentucky. 

Mississippi State (12-4)

The Bulldogs haven’t sustained a winning streak long enough to get them into the national conversation. They’re not considered one of the five best teams in a good SEC. Just hanging around. A NET ranking of 47 and a 2-2 Q 1/2 record. Three of the next four come on the road vs. Florida, Kentucky and Texas Tech, so we’ll see. But BPI says this is the 23rd-best team in the country. Iverson Molinar has been very good recently, while Garrison Brooks could hold the key to unlocking this team’s potential. Kinda feel like it’s destined to get to Dayton.

Creighton (10-5)

The Bluejays were a Sweet 16 team last year but not expected to contend in the top half of the Big East in 2022 after importing five new starters. As of today, Creighton is 59th in the NET (and yuck: all the way down to 98 in BPI). It’s 3-4 in the top two quadrants (all seven of those games are Quad 1) and has a Quad 3 loss vs. Arizona State at home. Plenty of reason to sell on this team. But it has eight scheduled games remaining in Q1/2, plus at least two more if/when it can play twice in the Big East tournament. Deep sleeper here. 

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@ me

The Court Report’s mailbag! Find me on Twitter, toss a question and I’ll answer some each week.

Almost never happens these days because this situation can be used against a coach/program in recruiting. It projects a lack of confidence from an athletic director. If a school isn’t in position to give its coach a longer contract, what assurances are there that said coach will be the coach for years to come? If that’s the case, why consider going to play for this coach if he might be gone in a year or two? While contract extensions are sometimes warranted, the reality is they are often done as means to keep programs from falling behind in the recruiting rat race.

You ready for this? Feb. 15, 1989, was the last time Kansas lost consecutive home games. That was 12,026 days ago. We are longer away from that day — by more than a decade — than that day was to the breakup of The Beatles. Loyola Chicago coach Drew Valentine wasn’t even born yet. Bill Self was an assistant in his 20s at Oklahoma State — which won that season at Allen Fieldhouse. It stands to reason that Kansas’ active streak of nearly 32 years without losing two straight home games is the longest of its kind in men’s college basketball history.

If this season’s Ja Morant was allowed to enroll and play for Memphis back in November, the Tigers would not be favored to win the title but they’d probably be in the “Final Four contenders” conversation. There’s been too much chaos in that locker room to believe otherwise. But I do think Morant’s talent and NBA experience would be impactful enough that Memphis would have no more than three losses at this point. Five of Memphis’ seven losses are by four points or fewer — Morant is likely flipping those outcomes into wins. He’s that good and would likely thrive in how Penny Hardaway tries to play. Plus: he’s the point guard this team so desperately needs.

Final shots

News from our Dennis Dodd: the Big 12 is going to be a 14-team league for a year two, which means it’s eyeing a split into two divisions until Texas and Oklahoma leave for the SEC in 2025 at the latest.
A nice look at down-transfers from The Heat Check. Down-transfers are players who leave bigger programs to play for less-heralded schools. One example: Foster Loyer, formerly of Michigan State, living his best life at Davidson this season. The Wildcats won their 14th straight on Tuesday night and are screaming toward a tourney bid. 
• The folks over at Big Blue History put last week’s Court Report lead item on Kentucky into further context. This year’s UK team is beating opponents by an average of 20.9 points per game. The only one better in the modern era is the famed ’95-96 championship team that won by an average of 22.1. UK is for real.
• Is 12-6 Marquette an NCAA Tournament team? Not at the moment, but a four-game winning streak has people thinking Shaka Smart could work wonders in his first season. Unfortunately, MU is underway with the toughest stretch any Big East team will have this season: vs. Seton Hall (won), @ Villanova tonight, then vs. Xavier, @ Seton Hall, @ Providence, vs. Villanova, @ UConn. All of those are projected tournament teams. If MU can somehow come out of this seven-game run with a 15-9 record, it’s going to be a bubble team. 
• The best part of Andre Curbelo’s return on Monday in that double-OT loss to Purdue: he didn’t commit a turnover in 25 minutes on the floor.
• A shoutout to a low-major stud who has had a hell of a week. Liberty’s Darius McGhee has 75 points on 23-of-36 field goal shooting at 15-of-15 free throw shooting in the Flames’ past two games. 
• With all of those COVID postponements and cancellations in the past month, you might be wondering which schools have suffered the most in terms of games. As of Wednesday morning, three are sitting at just nine games vs. D-I teams this season: New Hampshire, UC Irvine and UMES. Irvine might be the best team in the Big West. 
• Jamie Dixon’s TCU team won in OT at home over Oklahoma last weekend, pushing them into the at-large convo. The Frogs are 3-2 in Quad 1/2 and look to have enough defensive aptitude to make it interesting in a deep Big 12 — a conference that will push to get eight of its 10 teams into the Big Dance. K-State’s Tuesday night win at Texas makes the league even more intriguing. 
• Tonight marks the start of Texas A&M’s season, basically. I don’t mean to so casually dismiss the past 16 games, but Buzz Williams went out and scheduled the 326th-toughest nonconference schedule. The Aggies will need to pile up the wins in order to overcome such a weak November and December in order to make the tourney. Tonight’s home test vs. Kentucky is the on-ramp. Three of the next four to follow are on the road, so we’ll have clarity on this team by the end of the month.

https://www.cbssports.com/college-basketball/news/court-report-how-houston-is-validating-status-as-top-10-program-miami-returns-after-crippling-fbi-setback/ Court Report: How Houston is validating status as top-10 program; Miami returns after crippling FBI setback

John Verrall

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