Dancin’ with the Cougars
It may not be Phi Slamma Jama, but UH is Tourney-bound again.
by Maurice Bobb / @reesereport
Simply put, the University of Houston men’s basketball team has been an enigma for decades. Call it the “Curious Case of Cougar Basketball.” I mean, who could forget the program’s heyday when the collegiate dunking frat, Phi Slamma Jama, sped up and ruled the game by attacking the rim with their high-flying, gravity-defying, ‘Oh, man did you see that!? Dunks, stuffs, jams and alleys? And what about the epic matchup between UH and Louisville’s “Doctors of Dunk” in the ’83 NCAA semis? The way they played the game arguably changed the way the game was played from that point on—above the rim. After that, bball fans were treated to the kind of aerial wizardry they’d never seen before. Let’s face it, there’s no move more electrifying in the game than the SLAM dunk.
Houston went all the way to the title game that next year, but lost to N.C. State and cemented Jimmy Valvano’s legendary frenzied scurry all over the court into sports lore. Two members of that historic team, Clyde “The Glide” Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, went on to spectacular careers in the L and earned bids into the Hall of Fame. So it would stand to reason that the ’84 Coogs would open the doors for many more appearances by future squads in the tourney.
But then things fell apart.
UH didn’t make it back to the NCAAs until ’92 after bouncing around in irrelevance and then disappeared again like David Copperfield. Poof. Gone. Forgotten.
Houston has long been a breeding ground for basketball talent—heck, Yates, a prominent program for insane athletes, is only a few city blocks away—but UH didn’t have the name brand program to lure homegrown talent to its doorstep (case in point: they only recently got showers in their locker room after going six years without) and nationally-ranked recruits? Fuggetaboutit.
As so it was, years and years of mediocrity and virtually nothing to show for its Division I status. Sure, they’ve had the occasional guy make it into the League like Damon Jones, Bo Outlaw and Carl Herrera, but the program was…just…not…good.
Six years ago, they hired embattled coach Tom Penders, a 36-year coaching vet who’d manned the bench at UT, George Washington, Fordham, Tufts and Columbia with the hopes of getting the hoops house in order, but there were no real advancements and, of course, no dancin’ in March.
But this year UH turned the tide and romped their way through the Conference USA tournament, beating East Carolina, Memphis, Southern Miss and UTEP—four teams in four days—and captured the C-USA title and an automatic bid in the NCAAs after an 18-year drought. Is it any wonder why they were jumping for joy afterward like they’d just won the lotto?
“I’ve been to the NCAA tournament before,” Penders said. “But this is great for the kids, the UH faithful, the real fans and the students. There are a lot of UH haters around here that went to UT or A&M, so this is a sad day for them.”
Indeed. No one outside of the UH locker room believed they’d make it to the Tourney, and with good reason. You don’t usually make it to the dance with a 19-15 overall record. Just look at their first round opponent Maryland. They come in with a 23-8 record and the support of the basketball think-tank, who simply see Houston as an afterthought, a minor blip on the radar, a warm-up game.
“We have to work twice as hard as everyone else,” Penders said. “So we’re going to be tougher than everyone else. We’re the tough guys. And in NCAA tournaments, you see No. 8 seeds beat No. 1 seeds all the time. Elvin Hayes talked to our team and told them to ‘reach up and go get that star’ because no one is going to just give it to you. We’re making the players believe in what we’re doing and when we’re healthy, we’re a very good team.”
The Cougars left for Spokane today with that gleam in their eyes and they’re well rested after playing four games back-to-back to scrap for a seat at the NCAA table. They’ve gotten the joy of just being there out of the way; they’ve practiced and studied ACC Player of the Year Greivis Vasquez and the Terps with acute detail and caution; worked on defensive and offensive sets; dug deep, sweated and shot jumpers and layups and free throws over and over and over. But now they’re ready to eat, they’re hungry, they’re going into Veterans Memorial Arena as the clear underdog and they’re raving mad about it, especially the nation’s leading scorer, Aubrey Coleman. He’s got a lot to prove on the biggest stage, as does Penders, who lately, was on the chopping block fighting for his job. Do they have the slightest chance? Who knows? But that’s the great thing about the NCAAs. We love the upsets. We love the Cinderellas. We love the sheer excitement that comes with the one-and-dones. We love that pure college basketball.
So as the Coogs step into the arena to keep scratching their way into back to relevance, March Madness nation will be watching with filled-in brackets in hand.