Apparently a relatively easy non-conference schedule just didn't interest the Cougars much. They needed to face quality league opponents before stringing together their first three-game winning streak of the season.
A quarter of the way through Conference USA play, the Cougars are starting to click under first-year head coach James Dickey, whose team will really be put to the test when it hosts defending league regular-season champion UTEP on Jan. 22.
"The guys are starting to understand the value of protecting the basketball and defending," Dickey said after the Jan. 19 win over Tulsa. "Those two things give you a great chance to win. Our defensive awareness has certainly picked up, and all five guys when they are on the court are aware of what is going on. That comes from work and concentration. You can't have great defense without those things."
Of course, it didn't hurt that when Houston was forced to go small, it paid off. Against Tulsa, the Cougars had four players 6-foot-6 and shorter play 30-plus minutes, and all scored in double figures.
That probably won't be the norm, though, despite the strategy's effectiveness against the Golden Hurricane. Jan. 19 marked the return of sophomore forward Kendrick Washington.
BEYOND THE BOX SCORE: After sitting out four games with an infection in his left elbow, sophomore F Kendrick Washington got back on the court and made a big impact in a little amount of time. Washington scored eight points on 3-of-3 shooting in just 13 minutes in a Jan. 19 win over Tulsa. His return to the court could mean huge help in the frontcourt for senior F Maurice McNeil. In fact, that help was needed in the Jan. 19 win since McNeil's four fouls limited him to 17 minutes of playing time in the Tulsa win.
--Houston improved to 3-1 in Conference USA action and won a third consecutive game for the first time all season with a 64-57 win over Tulsa on Jan. 19. Four Cougars starters scored in double figures, led by Zamal Nixon, who had 14 points thanks to a 12-for-12 outing at the foul line.
--Houston had a season-low six turnovers in a Jan. 19 win over Tulsa. The Cougars' previous season low of eight happened twice -- Nov. 20 vs. Northwestern Oklahoma State and Dec. 11 vs. UT-San Antonio. Through the Jan. 19 game, Houston was averaging 14.8 turnovers per game.
--Coach James Dickey didn't like how his team was playing defense late in games in the first two C-USA games of the season, when Southern Miss scored 49 points in the second half and UCF went off for 50.
So when Houston prepared for a Jan. 15 game at SMU, Dickey knew something had to change.
"It's about being aggressive and staying with what got you there," Dickey told the Houston Chronicle. "We may just stay on the court at halftime, might not even go there."
While the team didn't stay on the court at halftime, something changed. Houston beat SMU and allowed the Mustangs just 36 points in the second half, an improvement in its second-half defense, even if it was against an offensively challenged squad. It's worth noting, however, that the Mustangs still shot 56 percent from the floor in the second half against Houston.
--Houston hit 13 of 15 free throws in a Jan. 15 win over SMU, an impressive 86.7 clip from the line. Even more impressive considering the performance only brought the team's season free-throw average up to 64.8 percent, still easily the worst in C-USA as of Jan. 15.
--Against 20 C-USA opponents last year (16 regular season games, four C-USA tournament games), the Cougars scored 80 or more points seven times. In the team's first three C-USA games this year, the Cougars were averaging 73.0 points per game and hadn't scored more than 76 points in a game.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 -- Through three C-USA games, Houston ranked No. 1 in 3-point field goal percentage, hitting 50 percent (24-for-48 as of Jan. 15). That percentage was well ahead of the league's second-ranked 3-point shooting team, UTEP (42.2 percent through four league games as of Jan. 15).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "My team looks at me to lead. When we're in high-pressure situations, they look at me to perform." -- Houston senior G Adam Brown.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME:
--vs. UTEP, Jan. 22
KEY MATCHUPS: The Miners made the NCAA Tournament last year, but the team is still smarting from the loss to Houston in the C-USA tournament, a loss that had the Miners sweating out Selection Sunday despite a stellar record and a regular-season C-USA title. UTEP senior G Randy Culpepper, the league's leading scorer (25.3 points per conference game as of Jan. 15) is the key to stopping the Miners. He's a small, slashing type who must be double-teamed all night.
FUTURES MARKET: Houston started out 2-1 in C-USA play despite not having a key cog to its machine in F Kendrick Washington, out with a staph infection in his left elbow. As Washington is expected to start rejoining the team in workouts in the coming week or so, the Cougars can return a little more emphasis to the frontcourt where F Maurice McNeil (13. points, 8.6 rebounds per game through Jan. 15) was holding his own, but another big in the post is always going to help out in league play.
--Senior G Zamal Nixon's 12-of-12 performance from the free-throw line in a Jan. 19 win over Tulsa matched the best free throw shooting night from a Conference USA player this year. Nixon, who was just 1-for-6 from the floor in the game, tied UTEP G Randy Culpepper for the most free throws made in a game without a miss this season. Culpepper, coincidentally, also did so against Tulsa on Jan. 5.
--Junior G Trumaine Johnson left the Cougars team, the Houston Chronicle reported Jan. 14. Johnson, a junior college transfer, played in 10 games for Houston, averaging 16 minutes and 2.5 points per game. The school said he departed from the team for personal reasons.
"We certainly wish Trumaine all the best in the future," Dickey said in a prepared statement released by the school, according to the Chronicle.
--Senior G Adam Brown, for the first time all season, came off the bench in a Jan. 15 win over SMU. It didn't seem to bother him much, as he scored a team-high 22 points in 36 minutes. Through that game, he led the Cougars in scoring, averaging 14.8 points per game.