Photo Courtesy: UCF Athletics
By John Weis (’94)
Next UCF Opponent: Houston Cougars (13-1, 1-0 AAC)
2021-2022 Record: 32-6 (15-3 AAC)
Coach: Kelvin Sampson (30th Season, 637-298 Overall, 9th Season with Houston, 212-71)
Last Game: 12/28 at Tulsa (W, 89-50)
Opening Tip: 12/31 2:00 CST, Fertitta Center (TV: ESPN Plus)
Opponent at a Glance
In most of my previews, I hold back the ESPN Game predictor until later, but I lead with it this time. Why? Because it gives the Knights a 4.8% chance to win. Houston won both the regular season and conference AAC tournaments last year, and put the league on notice they’re powerful again in 2022-23 with a 39-point throttling of Tulsa in their conference opener on 12/28.
Houston’s roster is an oddity in today’s college hoops landscape. None of the top eight Houston scorers came from the transfer portal.; they’re all home-grown Houston recruits. Leading the way is 6’2” Senior Marcus Sasser (15.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.8 PG). He’s followed by three players who are just shy of double-digit scoring: 6’5” Junior Tramon Mark (9.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg 1.9 apg); 6’7” Junior J’Wan Roberts (9.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg and an amazing 67.8 FG percentage); and 6’8” Freshman Jarace Walker (9.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.9 apg). Two other true freshmen, 6’3” Emanuel Sharp (7.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg) and 6’5” Terence Arceneaux (5.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg) also see significant minutes. Meanwhile, Jamal Shead, a 6’1” Junior, averages a team-leading 5.6 assist per game to go along with his 7.8 points per contest. Their lone transfer rotation player is 6/8” forward Reggie Chaney, who averages just 3.7 ppg and 3.0 rpg).
If you’ve not ever seen Houston play before, you are in for a surprise. There isn’t anything that they don’t do well … but they are especially adept on defense. UCF has not seen – and likely will not see – defensive pressure as intense as they’ll face against the Cougars. They’ll need 100% effort and will have to take extra-special care of the basketball to stand a puncher’s chance of pulling the upset.
“Houston is a terrific defensive team,” said UCF Coach Johnny Dawkins. “In our league, they’ve been one of the best defensive teams since I’ve been here. They have a lot of talent, with their guards and bigs – and they have a terrific coach. We’re going to have to play really, really well to give ourselves and opportunity.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
How dominant has Houston been through its first 14 games? They are scoring 75.3 points per game while giving up just 49.9. For the year, opponents are shooting a putrid 32.8% from the floor against them. They have only been involved in three games decided by five points or fewer.
Just think … next year this matchup will be a Big XII conference game!
The Cougars have beaten then-#2 Virginia. Their lone loss came at the hands of then-#8 Alabama.
With 637 career wins under his belt, there is no question Sampson is one of the game’s great strategists who will do whatever it takes to win, as evidenced by this 2019 quote from the Chicago Tribune. “Many will remember him as a serial NCAA violator who made hundreds of impermissible recruiting phone calls at Oklahoma and again at Indiana. For those sins, he lost a dream job with the Hoosiers in 2008 and received a show-cause NCAA penalty that effectively banned him from college basketball for five years.”
During that five-year hiatus, Sampson went on to become an NBA Assistant Coach and earned back the respect of those around the game. In 2014, the Cougars took a chance on him and have reaped the rewards ever since, including a 2021 Final Four appearance.
Houston leads the all-time series 17-10, including the last five in a row. The teams first played in 2006.
The most famous Houston basketball era remains the early 1980s, with the “Phi Slamma Jamma” group headlined by Hakeem Olajuwon (then Akeem) and Clyde Drexler. Their unmatched skill and athleticism made them a treat to watch and they drew fans nationwide. Sadly, the Guy Lewis-coached Cougars never won the national championship. They did come very close; in fact, they lost in the 1983 Finals to the Jim Valvano-led NC State Wolfpack. When Lorenzo Charles dunked in a desperation last-second shot as the final buzzer sounded, the “Cardiac Pack” scored one of the biggest upsets in championship game history against the heavily favored Coogs.
John Weis is a freelance Writing/PR professional. His company, Weis Words (www.weiswords.biz) serves national clients such as advertising agencies, public relations firms and sports organizations, as well as small businesses and private individuals. A native Central Floridian and basketball enthusiast, he spent six seasons as Broadcast Coordinator for the Orlando Magic Radio Network early in his career. He graduated from UCF in 1994 with a degree in Communications and can’t wait for the Knights to move to the Big XII.