By Roman Veytsman
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, December 2, 2005
Following the years of Guy Lewis and his 14 NCAA Tournament appearances, which included the years of "Phi Slamma Jamma," featuring Clyde Drexler and Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon, the Houston Cougars have sunk into college basketball obscurity.
However, with second-year head coach Tom Penders, a man with a penchant for rebuilding struggling programs, at the helm, Houston is back on track to regaining at least some of its previous luster.
Penders rebuilt Rhode Island, winning 20 games with a team that went 8-18 in its previous season. He took Texas, which had not won 20 games in nine seasons before his arrival, to an average of 20.8 wins over 10 seasons.
Before taking the job at Houston, the Cougars had averaged only 10 wins and made one postseason tournament in the last 11 years.
Penders took the Cougars to the National Invitation Tournament in his first season while winning 18 games, more than the two previous seasons combined.
"I think he can get Houston up to where they're a very, very good team," said Arizona head coach Lute Olson. "I'm not sure that he can consistently get the level of players that Guy (Lewis) got. ... (But) he's recruited a number of junior college players, and that's what made the difference now."
Penders might have hindered himself at Houston by restoring power for Texas basketball. With Texas now a legitimate player on the national landscape, the recruiting pickings have become slimmer for the Cougars.
"Things have changed a whole lot in terms of Texas," Olson said. "At the time Guy (Lewis) was at Houston, the Texas kids' first choice was Houston. Now, with what's been done at Texas, Texas has a huge advantage, and I think (Texas) A&M now, with their hire last year (head coach Billy Gillispie), that's changed things considerably."
As for this year's Cougars, who upset No. 25 LSU 84-83 in Baton Rouge, La., on Tuesday, they can score in bunches.
Led by junior-college transfer Oliver Lafayette (Brown Mackie College) and his 20.7 points per game, the Cougars have jumped out to a 2-1 record, including a 131-62 thumping of Florida Tech.
"I know they're going to be an energized team, and they're going to be ready to play," said junior point guard Mustafa Shakur. "Having a ranked opponent come into their home, they're going to be pretty hyped."
Lafayette will draw the defense of senior guard Chris Rodgers, who is second in the Pacific 10 Conference in steals (3 per game).
"He'll shoot it six, eight feet outside the 3-point line," Olson said of Lafayette. "It's a case if you don't have your hands up right into him, the shot is going up."
2005 record: 2-1
Lafayette scored 32 points against LSU and is shooting a scorching 58.3 percent from 3-point range.
Joining Lafayette in the backcourt is junior guard Lanny Smith, who's averaging 7.7 points and 8 assists.
"Lanny Smith and Lafayette, their two guards are terrific," said Arizona assistant coach Josh Pastner. "Two of the best guards we'll see all year long. They have tremendous quickness in getting into the lane, and they're great shooters."
6-foot-7 forwards Jahmar Thorpe, Ramon Dyer and Sergio de Randamie round out the starting five for Houston.
Like the Wildcats, Houston will try to push the offensive tempo, pressuring full-court on defense to create a fast-paced game.
"They're very athletic," Olson said. "They press all over the place. They run, they fire up a lot of 3's, so it should be an interesting game to watch."
The win against LSU put Houston on some of the Arizona players' radars, but either way the Wildcats aren't taking the game for granted.
"Just because they're not ranked does not mean we don't take them seriously," said freshman forward Marcus Williams. "Every opponent we come against, you can't take for granted. Everyone is going to come at us, since we're a top team, and give us their 'A' game. We have to come prepared."
Preparing for a team like Houston shouldn't be too tough, as Arizona has faced similar teams in the recent past, defeating Alabama-Birmingham in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season and facing helter-skelter Team Georgia in an exhibition game Nov. 16.
"They play extremely fast, they're well-coached and they have a lot of good players," Pastner said of Houston's style. "It's going to be a very good basketball game."
Eight Cougars play more than 10 minutes per game, but no one over 28.7, in their substitution scheme.
With Arizona's newfound depth (10 players seeing more than 10 minutes per game), the Wildcats may have just found their stylistic match.
"They like to play how we play, just get out and run," Williams said. "I think it's going to be a real tough game, on their home court, our first real away game."